Sea of Troubles is a short work which Kenneth MacMillan created for Dance Advance, an ensemble of former members of the Royal Ballet. In a programme note for the premiere MacMillan explained his inspiration.

“I have taken as a starting point the effect of the death of Hamlet’s father without a literal telling of the play. With the appearance of his father’s ghost, and Hamlet’s realisation of the need for revenge, his tormented world became a nightmare”

MacMillan reshaped the narrative for six characters; Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Ophelia and Polonius. The dancers in turn represent the various characters depicted; Batchelor, Maliphant and Sheriff variously as Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, or the Ghost; and Crow, Jackson and Styles as Gertrude or Ophelia. The approach is filmic – almost Noh-like; the scenes sharply intercut, the characters haunted by a ghost and their own guilt.

Yorke Dance Project performing Sea of Troubles 2016 ©Charlotte MacMillan 

Kenneth MacMillan with the original cast of Sea of Troubles (Dance Advance) copyright Neil Libbert

Kenneth MacMillan with the original cast of Sea of Troubles (Dance Advance) copyright Neil Libbert

The piece was a gift from MacMillan to its performers, his only condition being that it be recorded in Benesh notation. It was choreographed to be danced in smaller venues and - unusually in a MacMillan work - the dancers were barefoot. The Guardian’s critic Mary Clarke, who saw the premiere, wrote “For setting there is just a cream lace curtain which will serve as arras. Costuming is simple: black trousers and white shirts for the men, soft grey dresses for the women. When cloaks, paper crowns or a chaplet of flowers are added, the dancers , in turn become royal or mad Ophelia; when a plastic shroud envelopes a figure, we know Hamlet’s father is dead or Ophelia drowned...I found the work totally engrossing, marvellously theatrical.”

Sea of Troubles toured widely in 1988 and 1989, was briefly in the repertoire of Scottish Ballet in 1993, before being performed by a company led by Adam Cooper with dancers from English National Ballet in 2002 and again in 2003. In 2017 it was revived by Yorke Dance Project and performed at The Royal Opera House as part of the 25 year anniversary of MacMillan's death.




  •  First performance: Gardiner Centre, Brighton, 17 March 1988
  • Company: Dance Advance

  • Cast: Michael Batchelor, Susan Crow, Jennifer Jackson, Sheila Styles, Russell Maliphant, Stephen Sheriff

  • Music: Webern/Martinu

  • Design: Deborah MacMillan

  • Benesh notation score: Jane Elliott (1988). Working score