Kenneth MacMillan made Solitaire in response to a request by Ninette de Valois for a new work to substitute for a John Cranko ballet (The Angels) which had had to be postponed. Designs by Desmond Heely had already been commissioned for the Cranko ballet and MacMillan was asked to use them.
MacMillan subtitled his new work ‘A kind of game for one’; he also described it as a “a divertissement ballet”. Which in essence is what it was; a sequence of dances knit together by Malcolm Arnold’s Eight English Dances and by the continuity provided by Margaret Hill’s appearance in each one. “It is this girl”, wrote JHM of The Guardian, “who provides the only obvious choreographic thread, now as soloist, now as partner in a choral dance, now merely an observer of the rest of the cast: they, it seems, are her playthings.” This figure is a leitmotif in MacMillan’s work: she is an outsider, an observer; she tries to join in but is always in the end alone. The other characters may exist only in her imagination
The Times critic (un-named but possibly Clive Barnes) remarked that MacMillan’s eye for theatrical effect owed something to Ronald Petit, but that “he is more musical than Petit and, since his choreographic invention is stronger, he has less need to rely on dramatic assault”. “The choreography takes a hint or two from English country dances”, The Times continued,, and “it is never a romp; it pick up ideas from the composer’s keen instrumental colour-sense and it does not go on too long.”
For The Observer’s Alexander Bland, Margaret Hill was ‘too positive a character’ to convey the ambiguity of the girl, half-in, half-out of the goings on around her. “In the beautiful pas de deux she was excellent, but it’s no point her pretending to be Alice in Wonderland”
The night of the ballet’s premiere was the first time that an entire evening had been devoted to the work of a choreographer from the emerging generation; the other ballets performed in the programme were Somnambulism, Danses Concertantes and House of Birds.
First Performed: 7 June 1956
Company: Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Design: Desmond Heeley
Cast: Margaret Hill, Donald MacLeary, Sara Neil