Kenneth MacMillan and his Ballets
By Clement Crisp
This study explores the choreographic themes and the emotional and psychic concerns which are so central to the creativity of Kenneth MacMillan.
Clement Crisp, who has seen and reviewed MacMillan's ballets for forty years, from the earliest apprentice works to the final Judas Tree offers some observations on the nature of MacMillan’s inspiration, on the ideas that fired his imagination and their realisation in dance.
“As with another: one tears it from his guts; the other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” So said Charles Péguy and the comment is no less appropriate when considering choreographers. There are the 'overcoat pocket' dance-makers, in many styles, whose essential superficiality, whose repetitions of effects, reduce their work to formula rather than creativity. The same tricks, the same abrasive attitudes, crass re-visitings of old ballets or the same angry obsessions, come round with dire regularity, like the hands on a clock. Audiences, happy to recognise yet again something they have recognised before, applaud, and critical comment - no less reassured by the familiar - will make capital about an imagined 'style' and the supposed 'language' of the creator, when what is most notable is the timorous nature of the creativity, its complacency and lack of self-awareness, its reluctance to dare. Labels are written and stuck on, and the dance-maker is neatly and conveniently identified for posterity - or at least for the publicity machine of his company.
“His ballets came from his guts. Throughout his career, his psyche worried and fretted at his undeniable and considerable talent, goading him into producing dances”
Kenneth MacMillan was not of this kind. His ballets came from his guts. Throughout his career, his psyche worried and fretted at his undeniable and considerable talent, goading him into producing dances. His means of coping with his own emotional stresses was sometimes to exorcise them by making ballets, but these were both therapy and not- therapy for him. His talent was too uncompromising to allow him the ultimate self-indulgence of the stage as confessional or analyst's couch. He made ballets because he had to, in order to assuage his daemon, which was the daemon that lies within a true creator in whatever artistic discipline and must speak through the artist's work, and because he was a choreographer associated with a great national company, his ballets governed by its exigencies (he knew these as director and as chief choreographer), whose dancers and whose artistic history made demands which he understood and honoured.
I knew MacMillan. As a critic I knew his work from the first apprentice piece, Somnambulism, in1953, to the final Judas Tree nearly forty years later. Our friendship sprang from my admiration for his ballets, and from the advocacy for the merits of his choreography which he read in The Financial Times, an advocacy initiated by Andrew Porter, when he was both music and dance critic for that paper from the inception of its arts pages, which came just as MacMillan's creative career began, and continued by me when I joined the F.T. There was only one rule, unspoken yet mutually understood: we never discussed MacMillan's ballets before their arrival on stage, and we rarely discussed them afterwards. My reviews in The Financial Times were thus, I made sure, un-corrupted by prior information. I admired MacMillan's great gift as a dance-maker, and was fascinated and rewarded by his power to explore the human psyche and to find acute physical imagery to convey his understanding of the emotional subterfuges, those twists and evasions of feeling that fed the theatrical life of his characters.
“At his most piercing, he gave movement a scalding veracity, finding shapes and sequences of dance and pose which were dragged from deep in the subconscious of his characters and of himself”
In many ways he became, as I have noted before, a psycho-analyst to them, letting them voice their terrors, desires, anguish, in movement that pushed academic dance far beyond the then existing limits of the danse d'école. On occasion he drove his characters into corners, forcing them to an ultimate expression of their feeling. In so doing, he guided and goaded ballet towards a vocabulary of rare expressionistic force, but one still underpinned by his own belief in the rule of academic form and discipline. At his most piercing, he gave movement a scalding veracity, finding shapes and sequences of dance and pose which were dragged from deep in the subconscious of his characters and, I am inclined to believe, of himself. Occasionally, he did not at first comprehend why his creatures moved thus. He only knew that this was the way in which they must move and be seen: reason, experience, would later explain initial feeling and reaction, both on his part and on theirs. He once, uncharacteristically but revealingly, said to me: “Sometimes it takes three or four performances of one of my ballets for me to understand why a character moves in a particular way”' This suggests something of the procedures of psycho-analysis where, only after prolonged self-enquiry, may the patient understand the underlying motive for an action or a feeling. The journey into the labyrinths of the mind can be long, tortuous.
MacMillan's imaginative sensitivity in shaping his characters' physical behaviour can clearly be seen in the duet in his Isadora of 1981, when Duncan learns of the death of her children, and turns to Paris Singer (father of her son; Gordon Craig was the father of her daughter) in an anguished avowal of grief. The rawness of their shared despair, and also the phenomenal outlines of the movement (Isadora and Singer falling and almost squatting in the depth of their sorrow) partake of the force of Picasso's brush-strokes in Guernica. I sensed that beyond this expressive point academic choreography could not go. That audiences were profoundly moved by this harsh, beautifully ugly exposition of grief, and responded to the drama of its imagery, cannot be doubted, even in a ballet as diffuse and as flawed in structure as this Isadora.
“MacMillan again sought to show the darkest aspects of life, by proposing scenes set in a concentration camp”
In another provocative work, Valley of Shadows, MacMillan again sought to show the darkest aspects of life, by proposing scenes set in a concentration camp. His portrayal of Jewish victims of this abomination was direct in its austerity, and essential to a dramatic ballet concerned with evasions of social fact. But the Royal Ballet repertory, so richly endowed with fairies and sunny peasants and genteel, if suffering, heroines, could not sustain such an assault on its sensibilities: Valley of Shadows disappeared from the stage.
MacMillan's choreography enabled him to look at certain of his own ghosts. A shadowed childhood, which Jann Parry's new biography of MacMillan makes clear through her elucidations of his anxieties - and the versions of these which he would later offer to the world - and his escape from it (and from his family) through balletic training and eventually through balletic creativity, would always mark his introspective character. Even in his earliest works there is an un-mistakable concern with the mind, with its wounds and its means of dealing with those wounds, sometimes hiding them from public gaze, suffering their hurt in private. His first apprentice essay for the Sadler's Wells Choreographic Group was Somnambulism, where dreams spoke of the sleep-walker's un-masked identity. In Laiderette, which he made a year later, happiness in love is destroyed by a secret revealed - the baldness of the Pierrot-girl heroine. Two years later, in Noctambules, his first ballet for the Covent Garden troupe, a hypnotist forces four characters to expose their desires and their fears. MacMillan as analyst to his dance characters is shadowed by MacMillan as a creator already feeding on his anxieties of spirit, a doubling of concerns which would thereafter mark several of his ballets.
“This ability to think anew about a traditional language was a constant of MacMillan's creativity”
It would be wrong, in thus probing into motive on the part of a creator - and of characters who can be seen as extensions of his own concerns and perhaps of his persona - to overlook the fact that MacMillan was a brilliant maker of dance as dance, rather than of dance-as-therapy in choreographic terms. He has, as we saw so vitally in Danses concertantes of 1955, which was his earliest commissioned work for the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, a dazzling gift for realising music in movement. Danses concertantes glittered with ideas, born very much of their time and its youthful creative climate in cinema and theatre, bright-cut and innovative, secure in their academic roots but turning an accepted language into something wittily young, engagingly allusive. (Hands became butterflies or masks; arms emerged from the wings of the stage; steps bounced and flashed over the score; a hidden world of liaisons, flirtatious tension, was hinted at, yet never made explicit.) This ability to think anew about a traditional language was a constant of MacMillan's creativity, and in such later works as The Prince of the Pagodas or La Fin du jour or Symphony his easy manipulation of ballet's central vocabulary was a continuing delight.
But with early recognition of his talent, and the responsibilities which came with his success and his choreographic association with the Royal Ballet, there also came the desire to realise and develop his fascination with ballet's expressive potential. In 1958, The Burrow, with its concern about a trapped community (the linking with the world of Ann Frank is not wholly justifiable), developed his interest in dance as probe as well as expression, and brought him into a first contact with the dance gifts of Lynn Seymour, both as subtle actress and as ravishing dance-physique. It was The Invitation, in 19 60, which best showed his early interest in exploring the ambiguous nature of sexual needs and frustration. In that same year he had provided, in a realisation of Stravinsky's Le Baiser de la fée, an exquisite response to a score, the choreography most happily born of the music, and set on three dancers (Svetlana Beriosova as the Fairy; Lynn Seymour as the Bride; Donald MacLeary as the Young Man) whose fluency in movement, grace of manner, were ideally realised in an essentially lyrical choreography: the Mill Scene duet for the Young Man and the Bride remains one of MacMillan's loveliest creations, felicitous in showing young love, ravishing in its response to the score).
With The Invitation MacMillan spoke more clearly than before about the sexuality of his characters. The narrative, set in an undefined but warm-climated and Edwardian bourgeois household, tells of a boy and girl, cousins, experiencing the first pangs of affection and sexual awareness, who are seduced by an unhappily married Husband and Wife. The boy's initiation by the Wife is un-shadowed and can be seen as a rite of passage. The girl, more innocent, misunderstands the Husband's interest, responds almost childishly to him, and is raped. Her life, we are shown in her final frozen walk towards the curtain and her future, is irretrievably damaged. MacMillan's literary sources for this drama - Beatriz Guido's The House of the Angel and Colette's Le Blé en herbe -are conflated to provide a dramatic framework for dancing which speaks with subtlety about youth and experience: the boy laying his head tentatively upon the girl's breast, and repeating the gesture with the Wife, who responds with a frank acceptance of his sexual need. Throughout, the dance reveals those nuances of desire masked by social manners that marked MacMillan as a sure dramatist and as a poet of feeling. The creative path thus discovered is one followed and broadened in MacMillan's subsequent choreographies.
“He managed to delineate characters whose emotional and sexual identities were rewardingly complex”
In Romeo and Juliet of 1965, in Manon of 1974, he produced two big theatrical machines which were demanded both by the Royal Ballet's history of developing the full-evening ballet, and by the public's taste for such elaborate spectacles. In them, he managed to delineate characters whose emotional and sexual identities were rewardingly complex. These were real people, neither constrained by balletic convention, nor two-dimensional in their emotions. Complex structure, space for the narrative and the dance and the emotional life of the characters to open out, brought both weight and density to behaviour, from the hints of Lady Capulet's passion for Tybalt to Lescaut's moral piracy. These people lived after curtain-fall. With the full-evening Anastasia and Isadora MacMillan can be seen to be straining at every accepted boundary of the old ballet, hitting out at dramatic expectation and theatrical rule, and, alas, not succeeding as he had hoped. Then, in Mayerling, that most layered and resonant of his big ballets, he triumphed, forcing the conventions to accept his characters, forcing ballet itself to see the full-evening creation as a means of drawing a full-length portrait of a young man denied the parental affection he craves, tormented by oedipal feelings, by sexual excess, by his historical identity as heir to a fractured double-crown. (It is ironic that Mayerling can be viewed as a fascinating inversion of that most popular of balletic idées recues, Swan Lake, in its concern with love in death and a doomed Prince.) Mayerling offered a love-story, impossibly romanticised by writers and by cinema, which MacMillan both studies and de-glamourises.
With the one-act Anastasia which he had made for Lynn Seymour when they were both working in Berlin at the Staatsoper as the 1960s ended, MacMillan produced a ballet which looked with particular emphasis upon the nature of memory and of the psychosis of a 'pretender'. His Anna Anderson believes - or wants the world to believe - that she is the Grand Duchess escaped somehow from the Bolshevik massacre of the Imperial Russian family at Ekaterinburg. Lynn Seymour's prodigious interpretation, from the first tentative steps over the floorboards of a Berlin hospital by the crop-headed woman whom we first see, in quest of the faintest trace of reality, to the extraordinary figure riding round the stage on her hospital bed in something like triumphant self-realisation, was a thrilling exposition and justification of MacMillan's quest for dance as key to the psyche, and for choreography as expressive means. Against all reason, we, the audience, believed Anna Anderson's ludicrous fantasy, because MacMillan (and Seymour) were so commanding in their advocacy for the lies, so truthful in exploring Anna Anderson's mental state.
“MacMillan's fascination with extreme mental states was channelled into a forceful yet compassionate dance structure.”
Anna Anderson's world of delusion and psychic malfunction was to find parallels in others of MacMillan's most searching creations. In 1979 he made Playground for the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, based on a score by Gordon Crosse which he had heard and liked. An initial thought about the Orpheus legend was transmuted into a narrative in which a young man 'descends' (by climbing over a wire fence which was the enclosure in which the cast were constrained - a dazzling image by Yolanda Sonnabend who designed the piece) into a group of men and women who are 'playing' at being children, their ragbag of clothes, their mimicry of 'grown-ups', including this. They act out childhood fantasies: a girl (Marion Tait, piteous as the Eurydice figure whom the intruder singles out) suffers an epileptic fit, and this is an echo of MacMillan's own childhood, relating to a condition suffered by his mother, and it will feature again in his reverberant study of sibling relationships, My Brother, My Sisters. The playing out of childhood games, the shifting and almost hallucinatory nature of identities, even the question of why the Young Man (memorably danced by Desmond Kelly) should enter this enclosed world, and the final coup of white-clad medical attendants who supervise the inmates as they return to their institutional garb and strap the Young Man in a straight-jacket, suggest how MacMillan's fascination with extreme mental states was channelled into a forceful yet compassionate dance structure. Playground’s shifting realities, its offering of two intertwined states to its audience - therapy as fantasy leading to self-realisation - was told in what seemed uncompromising terms, although it could be argued that even the supposed doctor-attendants were also patients in this institution. Its theatrical effects, its frank dance language, were potent, shocking, hard-edged. (MacMillan remarked to me, early on, that he would like to see it performed by the artists of Pina Bausch's Wuppertal troupe: it was truly a piece of Tanz-theater).
It can be argued that in certain works MacMillan, uncharacteristically, picked on an easy target, one which so suggested 'a MacMillan ballet' in its exploration of sexual identity as to be almost self-parodistic. I felt this with his version of Strindberg's Miss Julie, made for Marcia Haydée in Stuttgart in 1969, which had all the necessary components of passion and social tension yet did not seem to challenge him. The bold expressionism of Wozzeck, which served as theme for Different Drummer in 1984, might also have seemed too easy a target. In the event, the staging provided a means of exploring Wozzeck's hapless condition in movement of uncompromising directness, matching the grotesque ferocity of Georg Buchner's original. And My Brother, My Sisters, made first for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, offered choreography of extreme subtlety.
I feel that this is the furthest that MacMillan journeyed in mapping the every-shifting territory of human relationships. An initial interest in the lives of the Bronte sisters and their brother was to lead on to a study of a family “set apart by landscape and circumstance” whose five sisters are dominated by their brother, whose games are fantasies in which menace, desire, insecurity, terror, all play their part, with masks as a frightening means of evoking fear and dissolving identity. The score comprised music by Schoenberg and Webern, its sonorities perfectly matched by MacMillan's taut, night-haunted dances, with death as a terrible resolution to the action. One other character is seen, a man who walks through the piece as an observer. Listed as 'He' in the cast, he passes through the action, untouched and untouching. A few months before his death in 1992, while his wife and daughter were in Australia, MacMillan spent a week-end at my house in the country. We talked of everything but ballet, save for one moment when I decided that I must know about 'He'. 'It's me, of course,' said MacMillan, and here was not simply an answer to a question, but a key to something of his creative process. His fascination and concern with the characters in his ballets was always, by the nature of his creative procedures, that of the analytical being who observes and charts the drama being played out.
My Brother, My Sisters is extraordinary in its sustained dance-mood of half-felt, half-guessed menace - rather as we can find in the novels of Shirley Jackson where the unspoken is as frightening as explicit terrors. In achieving this, MacMillan showed how surely he could grip his audience. A simple pas de bourrée seems like a whispered threat; a bespectacled sister, her glasses stolen, moves in blind anxiety over the stage; incestuous passion blossoms in secret smiles, revelatory gesture and dance; the brother's epileptic fit curves and threshes in imagery that turns physical anguish into gripping dance, draws the sisters, fascinated, into its fact. Throughout, this world of enclosed and secretive relationships is sustained by choreography that rarely rises above a mezzo-forte. The piece is a mastery display of creative assurance. In one other short dance work, Sea of Troubles, made initially for a small dance group sprung from the Royal Ballet, MacMillan produced a gloss upon Hamlet in which he had entire creative freedom from the constraints of working for a large national ensemble. The result was choreography where identity itself became unclear (since dancers doubled Shakespeare's characters, save for Hamlet himself). These shifts led to an extraordinary means of communicating Hamlet's own confusion of spirit. Hamlet (played with touching finesse by Michael Batchelor, a dancer of purest classic style, who died young) seemed both victim of the drama and its motive force, his life defined by the unreality of his state.
“MacMillan produced choreography as theatrically gripping and as emotionally reverberant as any he had made before, and, I would venture, more daring in its manner.”
In what was to prove his final ballet, The Judas Tree of 1992, MacMillan produced choreography as theatrically gripping and as emotionally reverberant as any he had made before, and, I would venture, more daring in its manner. His command of effect, the bravura layering of feeling and action, the mounting tension that leads to a final crisis, and the allusive means by which the choreography signals motive and events, are exceptional in expressive power. What more brave in balletic terms than the way in which the gang-rape of the Woman is shown, and what more persuasive of despair and unease than the exhausted and repeated running circuit of the stage by the Foreman's friend, the Christ-figure, piercingly created by Michael Nunn? Transferred to a Canary Wharf building site, transmuted and yet still truthful, we find the betrayal of Christ by Judas, the multiple and unchanging identities of womankind as mother, beloved, available flesh and consoling Virgin (in a formidably truthful performance by Leanne Benjamin). Nothing is fixed or certain, as a group of labourers seem by turn gang and disciples, and murder and betrayal take place before derelict motor cars which are both hulks and tomb, and historical allusion is born of murder-thriller procedure (as the Foreman, who is Judas, draws round the body of the murdered friend who is the Christ-figure). Driven in part by his desire to create for a great dance-actor (Irek Mukhamedov), MacMillan's choreography here seems more hallucinatory in its images, its 'meaning', its enquiry into the nature of passion, of guilt, of Jungian symbols, than ever before.
With much of the MacMillan repertory, one can see how the spark of unease, the first idea of some wound to a personality, can start the choreographic fires. Throughout his creative life, MacMillan made ballets which sought to express the human condition as he saw it - in a post-Freudian age. It would, though, be wholly misleading to view his dance-making, his significance, merely in terms of psychiatric enquiry. He was, first and foremost, a man who believed in, loved, was shaped by, the danse d'école, the language of ballet's daily class. He used it with felicity and imaginative boldness, in extending its range in plotless creations: The Four Seasons w as dazzlingly inventive in shaping academic steps; both Gloria and Requiem show how it may be used to face the presence of death; and in his masterly version of Song of the Earth - and in his Rite of Spring - the movement speaks with grand authority. But he was a child of his psychologically alert time, and the expressive potential of the academic dance was something that fascinated him, as it had earlier fascinated Antony Tudor and would fascinate Roland Petit, who continues to this day to make dance hugely revealing of an inner life. MacMillan's double talent - a commanding gift for movement itself; a willingness, a need, to dare in dance so that choreography might treat of character and personality as did the theatre and film of his time - has meant that ballet has learned to speak of character rather than cliche. MacMillan has, so to say, shown it the real world.
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 ›