Rituals was one of three new productions for The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in the 1975-’6 season. The company had recently returned from a visit to Tokyo, an experience which prompted MacMillan’s choice of subject. The East then seemed much on the company’s mind; Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet had recently danced Jack Carter’s Shukumei, while MacMillan’s own Prince of the Pagodas was already in gestation (even if it would take a generation finally to reach the stage).

Rituals, based on the traditional forms of kabuki and bunraku puppet theatre, is in three movements. The first, Preparation for combat and self-defence, is a male initiation rite supervised by a Grand Master. In a formal bout of combat two princes fight with each other until one triumphs. This is a novel and highly charged exploration of the possibilities of male pas de deux, which also guys exaggerated masculinity.

At first impression, the second movement, Puppets, appears to be a ritualised wedding ceremony. Processions of bride and groom approach each other. But when they disrobe, they reveal themselves as jointed puppets; each apparently manipulated by a team of puppetmasters. The puppet bride and groom, as they now manifest themselves, go through a stylised courtship and wedding. But after they are re-robed in wedding dress, they collapse. For Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers “the form of this section is fascinating and has the sinister implications associated with all puppets, as to who controls whom.”

A final section, Celebration and Prayer, is a stylised childbirth scene. A stern midwife oversees a mother’s pre-natal exercises watched by a cast of variously agitated ritual ‘celebrants’. She then appears to give birth. To John Percival, writing in The Times, parts of this scene suggested a Shinto equivalent of the western ceremony of churching a woman after she had had a child.

MacMillan’s choice of score was a compromise. He could not find an authentic Japanese accompaniment. According to Edward Thorpe’s earlier biography of MacMillan, it was Anthony Twiner, then conductor/accompanist with the Royal Ballet, who suggested the Bartok sonata with its intriguing sonorities and fierce rhythmic drive.

Yolanda Sonnabend's delicate parchment screens, suspended over the set and marked with bold black bush-strokes, frame the dance. The performers wear mask-like kabuki make-up; the effect is to conceal their faces, while formal robes partly disguise the bodies beneath. Several critics commented on a tension between the close authenticity of Sonnabend’s designs and the European-ness of score and choreography. But although some critics questioned the ballet’s over-all coherence, others recognised that Rituals was shot through with originality, with Peter Williams suggesting that its choreography was MacMillan’s most inventive since Song of the Earth.

  • First performance: Covent Garden, London, 11 December 1975

  • Company: The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London

  • Cast: David Drew, Wayne Eagling, Stephen Beagley, Vergie Derman, David Wall, Lynn Seymour, Monica Mason, Graham Fletcher

  • Music: Bela Bartok, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

  • Design: Yolanda Sonnabend

  • Benesh notation score: Jacqui Hollander (1976), Preliminary Master Score