“There is not much left of the Biblical story except the killing: this is a story from The Book of Freud”, wrote Alexander Bland of Kenneth MacMillan’s Cain and Abel for the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper. In this telling of the story, the brothers are rivals for their mother’s affections. And the Outsider motif emerges again in a MacMillan work, this time as Cain. His suffering is not of remorse at slaying his brother, but is, rather, caused by expulsion from the family.

As the ballet opens, the family is represented as a sea of ribbons, cross-crossing the stage, held tightly by dancers at the rim. Eve, mater familias, reclines at the centre. She reigns supreme; Adam, on the other hand is tyrannical, yet ineffective. The men, Adam, together with his sons, dive repeatedly into the ribbons of family life. But there is another presence too, that of The Snake. He coils and winds himself around every grouping, until their unity undone, Adam, Eve,Cain and Abel descend into fractiousness.

Cain and Abel design ©Barry Kay Archive

Cain and Abel design ©Barry Kay Archive

Eve warmly embraces Abel, to Cain’s intense jealousy. It is this, not God’s displeasure at Cain’s offering that precipitates creation’s first murder. MacMillan’s Cain is already a figure apart. As he is increasingly possessed by jealousy and anger, he leaps across the stage in great desperate arcs. After a sequence involving the snake and the two brothers, drum rolls herald Cain’s overflow of rage. After a taut intense struggle Cain murders Abel. Overcome by what he has done, Abel tries to crawl for shelter between his parents’ bodies. With great force they expel him from the family, which binds itself against him with its ribbons. Cain stumbles off, dragging his brother’s body.

“It is a little undigested in parts”, Alexander Bland wrote. “You feel that MacMillan is trying out a new language rather than exploiting a familiar one. But it works, and it has the special flavour of new basic discovery. Both the choreographer and his young anti-hero clearly promise us some surprises for the future.” There was general praise for the cast, in particular for Frank Frey’s portrayal of Abel (“A powerful young man with a prodigious jump and a glowering dramatic presence”, according to Bland). When the production was restaged a year later, Rudolf Nureyev flew to Berlin to see it, as the role of Cain was one he coveted. But MacMillan would not agree to a Royal Ballet staging without Frank Frey and it was abandoned.

Cain and Abel appeared in a triple bill with Cranko’s Opus Iand Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial. In November 1968, the Deutsche Oper unusually scheduled eleven consecutive ballet nights, which included all the productions staged there since MacMillan became director.

  • First performance: Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 1 November 1968

  • Company: Ballet of the Deutsche Oper

  • Cast: Frank Frey, Daniel Job, Dorothea Binner, Rudolf Holz, Gerhard Bohner

  • Score: Andrzej Panufnik, Sinfonia Sacra and Tragic Overture

  • Design: Barry Kay