In 1980 Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria powerfully evoked the tragedy of the generation that went to war in 1914. La fin du jour, which he made a year previously, is a balletic snapshot of a successor generation - that of the 1930s - on the threshold of war.

The poet W.H. Auden called the 1930s “that low dishonest decade”, a view with which MacMillan may well have sympathised. La fin du jour has little of the elegiac about it. In a set of dances derived from fashion-plates of the period, MacMillan is using style to suggest content. His ballet shines a mirror to a leisured class on whose pleasures he seems very content to call time. MacMillan had intended naming the ballet L’Heure Bleue after Guerlain’s scent, fashionable in the 1930s, but had to change his plans when Ravel’s estate objected.

Birmingham Royal Ballet ©Bill Copper

Birmingham Royal Ballet ©Bill Copper

La fin du jour begins with a beach party, the women in swim suits, the men in plus-fours and golfing caps. The focus is on two couples for whom there are introductory duets, a double pas de deux, solos and a seduction number. The second movement recalls the manipulation of the bridal couple in Rituals (1975). Two women, aviatrixes wearing goggles (recalling Amelia Earheart and Amy Johnson the aviation heroines of the day) are manipulated by five men apiece. Held high, they seem to pedal at the controls of invisible machines. In the final movement, as Peter Williams recorded for Dance and Dancers, the two male principals “bound about it shocking pink or apricot tail suits; the girls wear pleated chiffon culottes. There is much masculine activity, wide leaps covering the stage, and a sense of frenetic high spirits as darkness falls on the garden, seen through the door in the centre of the backcloth; the ballet ends as this door is closed on the world.”

For Alexander Bland of The Observer La fin du jour was “a cheerful and elegant pleasantry”; Arlene Croce of The New Yorker wrote “It’s a superficial ballet, but then it has superficiality as a subject” Several reviewers thought MacMillan’s seriousness of purpose subverted by the designer Ian Spurling’s high camp pastiche of 1930s fashion. “But it does”, wrote Mary Clarke for The Guardian, “get the period atmosphere of a carefree world when Elsa Maxwell gave parties and Gertrude Lawrence was the epitome of sophisticated elegance.” Clement Crisp, writing in The Financial Times, thought it a ballet far richer than it at first seemed. “It makes its points by hints, quick suggestions, but it does so with consummate sensitivity. It is a requiem for the douceur de vivre of an era, and it is nostalgically grateful for the 1930’s wayward charm.”

  • First performance: Covent Garden, London, 15 March 1979

  • Company: The Royal Ballet

  • Cast: Merle Park, Jennifer Penney, Julian Hosking, Wayne Eagling

  • Music: Maurice Ravel, Piano concerto in G Major

  • Design: Ian Spurling

  • Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1979) Preliminary master score.