John Cranko suggested the theme for MacMillan’s third ballet, House of Birds, based on the Grimm Brother’s macabre fairy tale, Jorinda and Joringel. A witch, The Bird Woman, snares young children and transforms them into birds. When the witch is overcome by two true lovers, the spell is broken; the witch’s victims peck her to death and resume human form. While the turning of mortals into birds is a familiar pastime of ballet sorcerers, House of Birds was one of only three MacMillan ballets which drew for inspiration on fairy tales (The other two are Le Baiser de la fée and The Prince of the Pagodas).
Arnold Haskell found in the first night performance “something of the thrill of a Diaghileff première” while the ballet impressed Clive Barnes of Dance and Dancers for its “brilliance and its oddness”, which would “assuredly earn MacMillan a one way ticket to Parnassus or Bedlam.” The Times found “much to intrigue the eye, but much that is fundamentally repellent.”
This was MacMillan’s second collaboration with Nicholas Georgiadis; for several critics there were influences of Paul Klee. The Guardian thought the designs “strange, piquant and right”. For the traditionally anonymous reviewer from The Times the designs were the ballet’s most striking elements, “brightly coloured but impregnated with cruelty, nature red in tooth and claw. From the outside of the Bird Woman’s aviary we see the facade and, as it were, an X-ray plan of the interior; and the analytic method is repeated in the Bird Woman’s macabre costume” (black tights on which Georgiadis painted a birdly skeleton).
The choreography for the Bird Woman (Doreen Tempest) suggested automaton movement and the complete absence of emotion (for Clive Barnes, “the personification of evil down to the last baleful feather”). The witch wore a heavy beak, her victims’ heads were held in birdcages. Although this complicated the movement possibilities, it also made for choreography that was ugly, jerky and full of menace.
Maryon Lane danced the girl transformed into a bird and then rescued by her lover (David Poole). For Barnes a pas de deux between the couple (complicated lifts foreshadowing future MacMillan couplings) inevitably echoed that in Fokine’s The Firebird between the Firebird and Ivan Tsarevitch.
John Lanchbery suggested to MacMillan that he use music by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. "I was mad about Mompou, who was little known in England at the time. I bought everything of his I could find and put the score together. Kenneth came and I played it through, and we did it there and then. Just like that."
First Performance: 26 May 1955
Company: Sadler's Wells Theatre
Music: Frederic Mompou arr. John Lanchberry
Design: Nicholas Georgiadis
Cast: Maryon Lane, David Poole, Doreen Tempest