Wild Boy was Kenneth MacMillan’s first commission from American Ballet Theatre since Journey in1957. MacMillan based his concept on Gordon Crosse’s score Wildboy, a concertante piece for clarinet with cimbalom and seven players. Cross had been inspired by François Truffaut’s film L’enfant sauvage. This in turn was based on Jacques Itard’s early nineteenth century account of how he tried to educate a boy found in a forest, and who had been brought up by animals. On the face of it, Wildboy offered intriguing possibilities as a dance score; MacMillan was encouraged by his previous experience of having choreographed another Crosse score Play Ground for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Crucially for MacMillan, so drawn to the outsider motif, a child of nature might be portrayed as the ultimate outsider.

Kenneth MacMillan in rehearsal with Mikhail Baryshnikov for Wild Boy 

Kenneth MacMillan in rehearsal with Mikhail Baryshnikov for Wild Boy 

In MacMillan’s new ballet, the Wild Boy was danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov, by then the artistic director of ABT. The choreographic focus was equally on the captors, two loutish men and a woman whom they possess sexually. The contrast between The Boy’s pure state in nature and the men’s violence is overwhelming. The woman has sex with The Boy. He in his turn is appalled by a homoerotic kiss between the two men. Finally The Boy is left alone, contaminated by contact with humankind and rebuffed both by humans and by the animals who had nurtured him.

Arlene Croce of The New Yorker struggled with the scenario. “Is it the Woman’s or the Wild Boy’s story that is being told? Our sympathies are attached to him, but she is an innocent too. How then does it happen that sex with the Wild Boydoesn’t revive her, but drains him? The moment of truth is reached when the two brutes are made to kiss each other accidentally and he falls back in horror at this revelation of homosexuality. It drives the Wild Boy to drink after which the animals of the forest sniff him disdainfully.”

Watching the animals, Clive Barnes, writing for The Times, was reminded of the clowns in MacMillan’s early ballet Laiderette (1954), who had similarly stood and watched a betrayal, disillusionment and the failure of an outsider to come in from the cold. There was no doubt, according to Barnes, that MacMillan could still “choreograph like a genius” but that from the outset he was hamstrung by the score’s “relentless mediocrity”. A Washington Post critic Alan Kriegsman complained that MacMillan “seem(ed) to expect the public to swallow the grossest forms of erotic exhibitionism and cynical bombast on the ballet stage as if they were the height of aesthetic daring. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times thought The Wild Boy more sketch than finished work, “but its very rawness is what makes it stimulating”.

  • First performance: Kennedy Center, Washington D.C, 12 December 1981

  • Company: American Ballet Theater

  • Cast: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Kevin MacKenzie, Robert La Fosse

  • Music: Gordon Crosse

  • Design: Oliver Smith (costumes), Willa Kim (scenery)

  • Scenario: Gillian Freeman

  • Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1981). Preliminary master score