Métaboles was created for the Paris Opéra’s Soirée MacMillan, the first time an entire evening by a British choreographer had been programmed there. The invitation had come from the then ballet director Violette Verdy and also on the programme was Four Seasons along with Song of the Earth.

In a programme note on Métaboles MacMillan quoted from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol (“Yet each man kills the thing he loves....) The curtain rises on five men in evening dress and a woman in long violet dress. Marie-Françoise Ridout described the action in Dance and Dancers. “Soon they rip off her long pleated dress and, like sadistic vampires, apply themselves collectively or singly to eating her”

Barry Kay had set high above the performance space a gigantically enlarged x-ray photograph of a human chest. From this Peter Williams, also of Dance and Dancers implied that “the area occupied by the dancers is by implication the stomach of a giant. Within it, a strange process of digestion is taking place.”

Clement Crisp of The Financial Times was also in the audience. “As in La Grande Bouffe, or the dinner scene in the film of Tom Jones, eating and eroticism are correlated. As the audience discovered, Métabole generated an obsessive emotional force. MacMillan uses an almost expressionistic manner at times (the men mime-eating, with hands rising and falling like pistons over a table) and the neurotic mood becomes very tense. Khalfouni and Bart were both excellent: Khalfouni, a pallid victim enjoying her fate, gave her role a morbid sensuality as she was handled in a variety of acrobatic/passionate lifts; Bart’s speed and impetuosity made the central male role as disquieting as that of the lunatic teacher in Flindt’s La Leçon.”

Scenic design for Métaboles ©Barry Kay Archive

Scenic design for Métaboles ©Barry Kay Archive

Dutilleux’s score, an exploration of the metamorphosis of orchestral ideas (and with some obvious debts to Messiaen) had five sections: Incantatory, Linear, Obsessional, Torpid, Flamboyant. A dense and abstract work, it was a curious choice for MacMillan. Nonetheless, Peter Williams thought it contributed to the theatricality of the ballet. But for Ivor Guest, the historian of Paris Opera Ballet, Métaboles “proved one of MacMillan’s less happy creations – a disappointment partly assuaged by the acclaim awarded to the revival of his Mahler masterpiece, Song of the Earth.” Violette Verdy was pithier. “A bit much, even for the French”, she told Jann Parry.

  • First performance: Paris, 23 November 1978

  • Company: Paris Opera Ballet

  • Cast: Dominique Khalfouni, Patrice Bart, Patrick Dupond

  • Music: Henri Dutilleux

  • Design: Barry Kay

  • Benesh notation score: Grant Coyle (1978) Master score