Shortly before the first performance of My Brother My Sisters, Kenneth MacMillan gave an interview to John Higgins, the arts editor of The Times. “Up to now with my story ballets”, he told Higgins, “I've been giving the spectators more and more information about the characters. Here, quite deliberately, I'm giving them less. It’s sufficient to say that there are five sisters and one brother; at the end of the work, which lasts about half an hour, you may be wondering whether they are related. I've based the ballet on real people, although fact and fiction are always blurred, and tried to realize their inner lives, not the ones they choose to show to the world. The idea has been with me for a considerable time. I read something, see something, forget it and then after an interval - four years in this case - it turns up again and is transformed into dance."
The family of MacMillan’s ballet are, according to MacMillan’s programme note “set apart by landscape and circumstance, intelligence and passion”, the open moors beyond a graveyard in Yolanda Sonnabend’s settings suggestive of Bronte country. A further quote in the programme from A.E Ellis’s The Racksuggests that the children play in a graveyard, in which they themselves will one day lie. The reference to the Brontes is never explicit, but MacMillan did acknowledge it in a 1985 interview with Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times. “It was Branwell (their brother) who was the hero of all their books. So my ballet became a ballet about a brother and all the sisters, about their fantasies. I didn’t want the public to know it was the Brontes.”
As in several other works MacMillan also explores here the intensely focused feelings of introverted groups. But in My Brother, My Sisters he pushes familial passions well beyond the point of crisis. As the family turns on itself, children’s games perverted through adult personality take on a psychotic logic. A highly sexual pas de deux depicts an incestuous relationship between the boy and the malign elder sister; younger sisters are coerced into an oppressive secrecy; the most vulnerable is endlessly bullied and in the end killed by her eldest sister. Throughout there is an outsider figure, a mysterious ‘He’, perhaps standing for MacMillan himself, who may be a dispassionate observer, or who may not exist at all.
“You can’t pretend to ‘like’ a ballet of this nature but goodness how you have to admire”, was Mary Clarke’s verdict in The Guardian. “And the final curtain, when the children finally realise their playacting has gone too far and death really has happened is terrifying.” For John Percival of The Times they were the most interesting cast of characters MacMillan had ever put on a stage: “all the more exciting to have such characters combined with an inventiveness of steps and phrases that exceeds even the youthful outpouring of his first professional ballet, Danses concertantes.”
“I do not know”, wrote Clement Crisp of The Financial Times, “if My Brother, My Sisters will become a ‘popular’ ballet; but its combination of action on two narrative levels, in that what we see at first glance is doubled by another and even more uneasy ‘inner’ narration, grips the mind, and demonstrates yet again MacMillan’s mastery as a choreographer able to explore the convolutions of the human psyche in exciting movement.”
First performance: Württembergische Staatstheater, Stuttgart, 21 May, 1978
Company: Stuttgart Ballet
Cast: Birgit Keil, Richard Cragun, Lucia Montagnon, Reid Anderson, Jean Allenby, Sylviane Bayard, Hilde Koch
Music: Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern
Design: Yolanda Sonnabend
Benesh notation score: Georgette Tsinguirides and Eduard Greyling (1980). Master score