Maker of Dances

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By Clement Crisp

Throughout his creative career, Kenneth MacMillan was concerned with making ballets which explored the human condition. Even his early works sought to expose mental and physical anguish, sexual needs, through movement which became more assured and innovative.

Kenneth MacMillan

Rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet (1965), Kenneth MacMillan with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev

The development of his choreographic gift meant that his stagings gained in daring as they probed into psyches, but also made greater challenges on audiences’ perceptions about what ballet should express, and how the academic dance language could be made more responsive to extremes of feeling.

Yet it must, first of all, be recognised that MacMillan was a classical choreographer, as he had been a fine classical soloist with both the Sadler’s Wells and Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballets during the immediate post war years (The Florestan trio in   The Sleeping Beauty, the Poet in Les Sylphides , the pas de trois in Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial with Beryl Grey and John Field give the measure of his artistry).

His creative career can be seen as a quest for a more honest theatrical form of ballet and, surveying his choreographies, we can see how persuasively, how imaginatively, he extended the dramatic and emotional range of classical dancing. From his first works made during the 1950s, MacMillan showed himself a child of his time. What he saw in the theatre and the cinema of the 1940s and 50s – and in the early ballets of Roland Petit and Jerome Robbins – impressed him as a reflection of his age; much of what he saw in British ballet at that same time he described to me as “window-dressing”. Unthinking conventions, mindless prettiness, were anathema to him - they corrupted what he knew should be an art form potent in drama as in its physical forms. Hence his need to make ballets in which he could shape the dance language to speak of emotions as he knew them, and of the sufferings that afflicted the human psyche – of which he had early experience – and of which a post-Freudian generation understood as central to behaviour.

In the first of his apprentice pieces, Somnambulism (1953), the young MacMillan was concerned with dreams and thus he stated his interest – perhaps even staked a claim – in an interior landscape of feeling. (And in 1954 Laiderette identified his concern with a figure whose “secret” (baldness) destroys her happiness). His professional debut with Danses Concertantes  in 1955 was a bravura display using a witty, allusive classical vocabulary, remade by a creator who knew the cinema and spoke the movement language of his generation. It was thus that he presented his credentials as a craftsman, sensitive in his response to music, fluent in making choreography, sure in his sense of theatre (I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the first performance, and still know the excitement of those quirks and intoxicating twists of steps and balletic conventions). Thereafter he was to make works for the two sections of The Royal Ballet which extended dance-movement on both technical and expressive terms. Thereafter, too, he was able to start that guerrilla struggle, which lasted for the rest of his life, to persuade administrators and public that outside the claustrophobic ballet studios of a major national company was the twentieth century world of adventurous theatre, of artistic experiment, a world of emotional turmoil, of sexual need and sexual hurt, of dispossessed humanity, even of genocide (all these are themes we find in his work).

MacMillan, was, above all, a maker of dances, a discoverer of movement which could trace the darkest aspects of human experience, or penetrate to the heart of the situation

It would be cruelly to undervalue his ballets and diminish his significance, if I saw this as the chief aim of his creativity. We must understand MacMillan first as a maker of dances. Not on the terms of the Eurotrash of the last two decades, where the fraught message is all that matters and dance itself is no more than pointless gymnastics imposed on some hapless score. MacMillan, was,  above all, a maker of dances, a discoverer of movement which could trace the darkest aspects of human experience, or penetrate to the heart of the situation (as of a human being). Of course he journeyed into dangerous territories – to a mother’s grief at the loss of her children (in Isadora, where the duet between Isadora and Paris Singer tears at our hearts as it has been torn from the protagonists); to the utter blackness of a concentration camp (in Valley of Shadows, where the prisoners become terrified automata); to gang rape (in The Judas Tree, where the group obliterates the individual); to madness and epilepsy (in Playground, where I suspect he travelled furthest in the direction of a dance theatre – and how grandly so); to mental alienation in Anastasia’s third act, where Anna Anderson’s only reality is the floorboards in her hospital room, whose lines she traces as her first movements; to the doomed world of an Empire and the psychic labyrinth in which its heir is lost (in Mayerling, where Rudolf’s identity is perverted and then sacrificed to dynastic considerations). MacMillan’s safety net in the most extreme passages of his dance-making was a fundamental understanding and love of the language in which he and his interpreters grew up, and which was the fibre of his being as it was of theirs. Early in his career he started to challenge the academic language. (At the first performance of The Rite of Spring I thought that MacMillan had abandoned the academy. Succeeding viewings showed how firm were classic attitudes in the choreography; the role of The Chosen One can only be danced by a classically trained artist). The security of his most far-seeking far-venturing work lies in his faith in an academic language (and, as important, in academic laws of form).

All his dance works have this armature, and it is no accident that his last three-act ballets, The Prince of the Pagodas, was conceived as a tribute to the manner of Petipa – just as Britten’s composing had been accompanied by a study of Tchaikovsky’s ballet-music. It is worth reminding ourselves, too, that MacMillan could use traditional forms of academic dance with entire felicity; his The Four Seasons could not be more ‘correct’ in its acceptance of Verdi’s delicious score, and both Symphony and Olympiad were happy ventures in the refreshing of classic steps.

The beautiful and under-valued Rituals is a most succinct and skilled transformation of Japanese theatre into Western dance

But the experiments had to continue – remarkably, MacMillan never sought to rest on any laurels; his repertory can seem as a series of gambles he set himself, gambles he dared himself to win in seeing how far and how cussedly he might push dance and still retain his own creative manner (The beautiful and under-valued Rituals is a most succinct and skilled transformation of Japanese theatre into Western dance). Death was an ultimate frontier for him, beautiful in Song of the Earth and Requiem; troubling in Gloria and Orpheus. His own psyche dictated his fascination with how personality may be forced to come to a reckoning, to learn to know itself. ( My Brother, My Sisters  an obvious example, but Anastasia the most extended example of this quest for identity.). In such ballets, he showed compassion for mankind’s frailties; and in order to find the most piercing movement to expose these onstage, he seemed to act as an analyst to his characters, cornering them through the dramatic structures of his ballets, so that he might find how they ‘spoke’ of themselves and their inner feelings in dance.

Adopting Chekhov’s Three Sisters for the late Winter Dreams, the fascination for the choreographer was to observe the erosion of joy and social order, which had been an undercurrent in much of his work throughout his career. The dance discloses personality, motives, the illusions and the disillusions which are the play’s theme. At the last we have a picture of a provincial society in crisis, with winter dreams no bulwark against a cruel reality which gnaws at every relationship. But Winter Dreams also shows something of MacMillan’s profound influence upon The Royal Ballet. He encouraged in his casts extraordinary perceptions in the presentation of character. The roles he created were born of their interpreters’ gifts, and at every moment developed and enhanced those gifts. In the MacMillan repertory, the Royal Ballet can be seen as a troupe of uniquely gifted dance-actors, capable of unerring expressive truth. In much of MacMillan’s work, ballet is thus challenged, and shown to be an art able to touch the heart of its characters, its performers, and its audience.

Clement Crisp is dance critic of The Financial Times. Hear him describe what first drew him to MacMillan's work in an interview with Brendan McCarthy, available in the audio gallery.
Listen to the interview ›