The one-act Anastasia in Berlin was the first time Kenneth MacMillan had used film in tandem with choreographed action on stage. Checkpoint was the second – and with less happy results. The audience in Manchester had to wait for almost an hour while technicians completed work on Elisabeth Dalton’s set; scaffolding, back-projection and huge electronic eye. The work itself, MacMillan’s first for the Royal Ballet since Romeo and Juliet, was twenty minutes long.
Dalton’s design images were redolent of the still-divided Berlin in which MacMillan had so recently lived; the infamous Wall with its watchtowers, cameras, armed guards and sudden death. Choreographically the ballet, patently inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, was an extended pas de deux with interpolations from a corps of seven dancers. MacMillan depicted a future totalitarian society in which all expression of human feeling was forbidden and love could only be furtive.
For the ballet’s protagonists (danced by Svetlana Beriosova and Donald MacLeary), this meant assignations in the shadows, huddles against walls and even a vertiginous duet half way up a sheer wall in their attempts to avoid the all-probing video eye. In the end, they are discovered; the wall which was their refuge now devours them. The ballet ends with only the couple’s hands visible as they are swallowed by the wall and vainly try to reach other.
Whatever the production intentions, the set appeared cumbersome and unominous. The purportedly all-seeing eye was blinded when a back-projector broke down. “It is a good subject and was boldly conceived” wrote The Observer’s Alexander Bland. “But from the moment the curtain rose things went wrong. The setting was cumbersome but ineffective, with very unalarming projections; the score (Gerhard’s Collages) contributed little and the dance-style seemed half thought-out. Svetlana Beriosova and Donald MacLeary were the unhappy lovers in what must be counted a brave failure”.
“Some of the movement is beautiful”, conceded Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers. “Were it a purely abstract pas de deux it would be interesting. But the ballet is lumbered with a story... nothing really fitted together at any point.”
First performance: Opera House, Manchester 17 November 1970
Company: The Royal Ballet New Group
Cast: Svetlana Beriosova, Donald MacLeary
Music: Roberto Gerhard, Symphony No. 3 (Collages) for orchestra and tape
Design: Elisabeth Dalton
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1971). Working score (incomplete)
Among Kenneth MacMillan’s successes when he was director of the ballet at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper was the one-act Anastasia. Its protagonist was Anna Anderson, diagnosed as schizophrenic, who had tried to persuade those who would listen that she was in reality the Grand Duchess Anastasia, only survivor of the massacre of the Russian Imperial family.
When MacMillan returned to London as director of the Royal Ballet, he decided to make her story the subject of a full-length work. The Berlin Anastasia became the third act of the new ballet premiered at Covent Garden in July 1971. It was not a ballet merely but a manifesto. MacMillan believed that ballet’s future was assured only, if like the other theatre arts, it could speak to its times. In both its style and content Anastasia was a determined engagement with modernity.
Anastasia was also a fascinating exploration of the psychology of identity. For this new work, MacMillan reached back in time to Anastasia’s youth and to the final days of the Romanoff dynasty. The ballet already staged in Berlin became the final act of the work performed at Covent Garden. In the new Acts I and II Anastasia is a real historical figure. Act III is shot through with ambiguity and leaves unresolved the question of whether Anna Anderson was who she claimed. The new ballet is a creation in reverse; an exercise, if Anna is indeed Anastasia, in retrieving memory.
The first act is a childhood idyll: the teenage Anastasia is on a summer picnic in 1914 with the Tsar and his family. A group of naval cadets are there to liven up the afternoon. Lynn Seymour, who created the role of Anastasia, decided that she could best portray her character’s precocity by making her entrance on roller skates, wearing a sailor suit. The picnic ends with the arrival of a messenger. He brings news of the outbreak of war. The cadets assemble and prepare for action.
The second act is set in 1917 against the unrest which grips St Petersburg. At the Imperial Palace there is a coming out party for Anastasia, now 16. Among the entertainments is a virtuoso pas de deux by two dancers from the Mariinsky. The ballerina, the Tsar’s ex-mistress is Mathilde Kchessinska (danced in the 1971 production by Antoinette Sibley, partnered by Anthony Dowell). The celebrations are interrupted by armed revolutionaries and the Tsar and his family are marched away.
In the final act, essentially the one-act Anastasia performed in Berlin in 1967, Anna Anderson (Anna, but now with cropped hair and ravaged face) recreates a confused and half-remembered past; whether this is memory or fantasy MacMillan leaves to the audience’s judgement (only in the mid 1990s did DNA tests finally determine that Anderson was not the Tsar’s daughter). Projected film shows close-ups of a young girl at the Tsar’s side and Anderson rushes towards the screened image. Characters from the first two acts reappear, but in different guises; this, MacMillan told Clement Crisp, was intended to underscore Anna’s confused memories of past and present. At the ballet’s end, Anna is possessed of iron certainty; she is indeed Anastasia and claims the tribute that is hers by right. Anastasia’s problem of identity was not, MacMillan explained, one for herself. “Always, throughout all the mental and physical confusion, she knows she is the Grand Duchess. Her tragedy is in convincing the rest of the world.”
The Martinu score for Act III was apt to MacMillan’s scenario. When he wrote it, Martinu was recovering from a head injury and a serious loss of memory. For the new acts, MacMillan settled on two Tchaikovsky symphonies, intended to evoke the sound world of the events to be depicted. Tchaikovsky’s scores are roughly contemporary with the events depicted, while Martinu’s symphony underscores the ambiguous existence of Anna, the would-be Anastasia, after she recovers consciousness in a Berlin mental hospital.
To its advocates Anastasia was daring in its imaginative reach. “I acclaim the choreographer as dramatist, story-teller and poet”, wrote Richard Buckle in his Sunday Times column. He praised it as “an epic, golden endeavour”. For Andrew Porter of The Financial Times, Anastasia had “the intellectual layers and emotional depth of a considerable work of art.”
But there was vehement dissent from two critics in particular. John Percival of The Times thought Anastasia was “tastelessly Ruritarian in concept .... which hardly augurs well for the future”. “The real sorrow”, complained Clive Barnes in The New York Times “is that its inclusion in the New York repertory has meant the exclusion of works – such as Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée or Ondine – that are basic to New York’s view of the Royal Ballet.”
Back in London most critics, even if they thought Anastasia flawed, were also prepared, like Alexander Bland of The Observer to concede its merits. “MacMillan has brought off several major feats. He has provided an evening packed with classical dancing which is always distinguished in that quiet way which rewards repeated viewings: he has created a bunch of roles which show off the company to great advantage.”
For critics of MacMillan’s directorship, in particular Percival and Barnes, Anastasia became emblematic of their distaste for his artistic choices. However, Arlene Croce of The New Yorker praised MacMillan for the scale of his ambition. “In Anastasia he produced a personal fantasy about a global cataclysm entirely from nothing. I don’t think he was being pretentious, and the insults that were showered on him for missing the mark themselves missed the mark.” And for MacMillan’s advocates, such as Clement Crisp of The Financial Times, Anastasia was eloquent evidence of “how the big ballet can speak of this century’s history in this century’s terms.”
First performance: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 22 July 1971
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Lynn Seymour, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Derek Rencher, Anthony Dowell, Gerd Larsen,Vergie Derman, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Marilyn Trounson, David Wall, Michael Coleman, Adrian Grater
Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphonies Nos. 1 (Winter Dreams) and 3: Bohuslav Martinu, Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6): Electronic score, Fritz Winckel and Rüdiger Rüfer
Design: Barry Kay
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1971). Working score for Acts I and II. For Act III see Anastasia (1967)
Triad graphically portrays the intensities of adolescence and yet again MacMillan created an ‘outsider’ figure, one left behind. There are three central characters, two brothers and a girl. Her arrival disrupts the very intense relationship between the brothers. The elder (Anthony Dowell) tries to impress the girl and cynically pushes his junior (Wayne Eagling) into the clutches of a gang of young toughs (with whom the girl arrived) who beat him up. He then has a dalliance with the Eve-like newcomer (Antoinette Sibley). Driven by resentments he can barely understand the younger brother lashes out. But dawning sexuality has undone childhood sweetness. The elder has been swept across the threshold of eroticism and the younger must wait outside.
Richard Buckle was struck by the Cain and Abel like resonances of a pas de trois for Sibley, Dowell and Eagling and thought Triad showed MacMillan to be at the height of his powers. “Second sight of Triad”, Buckle wrote in hisSunday Times column “leaves me in no doubt that it is MacMillan’s best ballet. The slides, the curious standing-sitting manège, the tangled knots of choreography resolved in extensions, the partings of the lovers’ bodies by the probing brother – so many inventive passages of dance, together with the drama caused by Dowell’s tenderness for his brother Eagling and the rejection of him in favour of the vampire Sibley – all seem to spring so naturally from the contorted hysteria of Prokofiev’s violin concerto.”
To some eyes the designs subverted the intent of MacMillan’s choreography. Because Peter Unsworth in the original production costumed the dancers in patterned white body tights, several critics thought the impact excessively balletic. Mary Clarke of Dancing Times complained of a design tendency to make all new ballets look as if they are about ballet dancers than about real people. To The Observer’sAlexander Bland all the dancers were all dressed like sprites. “Even the three toughs looked like they had strayed from somewhere at the bottom of the Garden.”
But even if the raw hurt of reality was somehow lost in the telling or masked in the costuming, the ballet had much to tease the eye, with a cast at “top classical trim” (Bland) and choreography which for Philip Hope-Wallace of The Guardian was “the real right thing”. And after the opening night, Ninette de Valois, the Royal Ballet’s founder sent MacMillan a telegram. It read simply: 'For me your finest work.'
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 19 January 1972
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Wayne Eagling, David Ashmole, Peter O’Brien, Gary Sherwood.
Music: Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concert No.1
Design: Peter Unsworth (redesigned Deborah MacMillan 2001)
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1972). Preliminary Master Score
Video: NVC Arts, American Ballet Theater at the Met (B00008AORF)
To some who saw it Ballade had afterimages of MacMillan’s Triad. The dramatic tension in both ballets is a little similar; a woman disrupting the equilibrium in male relationships.
Ballade, a chamber work with a cast of four, was created for The Royal Ballet’s New Group and premiered on a continental tour. The set is austere; white backdrop, white table, white chairs. As the ballet opens, the four dancers sit in line with their backs to the audience. They look at each other and the men look to the only woman. All move to the table as if to play a card game. What followed seemed to Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers an exercise in choreographic poker with the men making plays for the girl in a sequence of pas de deux or groups. She makes up her mind, chooses one, and the two other men leave the table.
“Out of that slender material”, wrote James Kennedy in The Guardian, MacMillan has made a fluent, gently emotional and uninterrupted kaleidoscope of dance. The setting gives it an initial flavour of stern modernism; but essentially is it a series of variations on MacMillan’s quite familiar neo-classical idiom – free and bold but very recognisably stemming from the grand tradition”.
First performance: Teatro Nacional de S. Carlos, Lisbon, 19 May 1972
Company: The Royal Ballet New Group
Cast: Vyvyan Lorrayne, Paul Clarke, Nicholas Johnson, Stephen Jefferies
Music: Gabriel Fauré, Ballade for piano and orchestra
Benesh notation score: Jacquie Hollander (1972). Working score
Arrangements were under way for The Royal Ballet’s 1972 visit to New York, and Sol Hurok was demanding a world premiere to give focus to the season. MacMillan therefore choreographed a short pas de deux for Lynn Seymour and Rudolf Nureyev. Side Show is a comic pas de deux for a moustachioed circus strong man and a ballerina; a Victorian cartoon of a frayed music hall act long past its prime. Stravinsky’s intent when he wrote the Suites was also satirical; he said that when he wrote the polka he was imagining Diaghilev as a circus ring-master cracking his whip.
It was decided to give Side Show a try out before New York, and so performances were arranged for the last day of the Group’s visit to Liverpool on 1 April 1972. In retrospect it was clear this was a mistake. Liverpool became very excited, for this would be the first time that Nureyev had danced in the city. Side Show was not what the audience expected – they had anticipated seeing Nureyev in a classical guise - and the performance was badly received.
However Andrew Porter The Financial Times was appreciative of Side Show’s intrinsic merits. “Brilliantly devised to show off all the things the two of them do best, it includes fleet, funny references to their (and others’) achievements, some happy moments of mutual mockery, and a good deal of witty new invention perfectly keyed to Stravinsky’s spirited miniatures. Seymour proves herself (once again) the most subtle and seductive of comediennes.”
First performance: Royal Court Liverpool. 1 April 1972
Company: The Royal Ballet New Group
Cast: Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev
Music: Igor Stravinsky, Suites Nos. 1 & 2 for small orchestra
Costumes: Thomas O’Neil
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1972). Working score
For The Poltroon, Kenneth MacMillan recreated the characters of the commedia dell’arte, but with a twist. The characters are unromantically drawn and Columbine and Harlequin (Last and Jefferies) depicted as put-upon servants. The moonstruck Pierrot (MacLeary) becomes the vicious Poltroon of the ballet’s title wreaking a terrible vengeance on his tormenters. Chief among these is Pantaloon, the autocratic and miserly master, who scoffs sausages on-stage as part of his act (in a programme note Pantaloon was described as a businessman and Pulcinella as a fascist bully). Pierrot pines for what Peter Williams, writing for The Observer, described as a “real bitch of a Columbine”.
There are two sections, one onstage, the other offstage, where the players revert to their ‘real selves’. In the ‘stage performance’ Pantaloon becomes ill through over-eating. After a grotesque operation (sawn off limbs all over the stage), he survives and adds to the miseries of his household. They in turn prey on Pierrot. Columbine is no romantic heroine – she has had sex with every character except Pierrot. Harlequin offers Pierrot a drugged potion. This induces a dream duet in which he romantically pursues Columbine, who evades his advances. Pierrot awakes; the others mock him; the stage performance ends.
At this point, Thomas O’Neil’s set revolves to reveal ‘backstage’. It becomes clear that the actors are identical in personality to the characters they depict on stage. Pantaloon is a miserly actor/manager who pays his players a pittance and Pierrot nothing at all. Columbine plays Pierrot along in ‘real life’, just as she did in the earlier dream fantasy. Pierrot snaps. He kills Columbine in the course of a violently sexual pas de deux and continues to dance with her lifeless body. Finally, Pierrot kills the other characters.
The critics of the day blew cold on The Poltroon. Perhaps it was Mary Clarke, writing for Dancing Times, who had the truest instinct for MacMillan’s motives in making The Poltroon, for the real objects of his satire and for the ghosts he may have been attempting to exorcise.” Clarke’s review ended:
“It is a nasty ballet and some people have called it a sick ballet. It certainly is not vintage MacMillan but how can people expect vintage MacMillan when he has been subjected for nearly two years now to a new and very pernicious “criticism” – from both ends of the Atlantic? This is neither outspoken condemnation nor reasoned arguing. It is snide, personal and usually couched in such short, stinging phrases that it will cause the greatest possible hurt to the victim. I find it irresponsible and very short-sighted. It is one thing to criticise the director of the Royal Ballet – and the direction has come in for anti-Establishment blastings all its successful life. It is quite another thing to slaughter a creative artist. If MacMillan’s zest for choreography is killed, who in heaven’s name, have we got left?”
In her biography of Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer, Jann Parry quotes a member of the cast, Ashley Killar. “The tragedy is that the ballet’s real virtues – the masterful study of grotesquerie, insightful character choreography and inventive pas de deux – are now dismissed. They were part of a ballet that was produced in the wrong programmes at the wrong time.”
First performance: Sadler’s Wells, 12 October 1972
Company: The Royal Ballet New Group
Cast: Brenda Last, Stephen Jefferies, Donald MacLeary, David Gordon, Carl Myers, Graham Bart, Ashley Killar.
Music: Rudolf Maros, Studies for Orchestra and Musica di Ballo
Design: Thomas O’Neil
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1972). Working score
This was a piéce d’occasion for a gala at Covent Garden to celebrate Britain’s accession in January 1973 to the European Community and was the first of two MacMillan contributions to the evening’s programme (in the other Rudolf Nureyev and Lynn Seymour danced the Side Show pas de deux). The couple in Pavane were Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who also designed the costumes.
For Mary Clarke, writing in Dancing Times, the pas de deux was “one of the loveliest he (MacMillan) has written; not perhaps Gala fare, too sensitive and delicate, but with some extraordinarily beautiful lifts and changes of direction.”Pavane took on an intensely elegiac quality when, after Kenneth MacMillan’s death, Birmingham Royal Ballet added performances to a mixed programme as a tribute to his memory. The dancers were Marion Tait and Kevin O’Hare.
First performance: Covent Garden, 13 January 1973
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell
Music: Gabriel Fauré, Pavane
Design: Anthony Dowell
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1973). Preliminary master score
Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Covent Garden was born not of conviction but of bureaucratic compromise and had little of the luxuriance of his previous staging for the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. While MacMillan and the credited designer, Peter Farmer, were roundly condemned for it, the reality was that the 1973 production’s fate was sealed from the outset.
It replaced Peter Wright’s 1968 production, designed by Lila di Nobili, which was not popular with audiences in London or in America. The chosen designer, Beni Montresor, was not MacMillan’s choice, but that of the Covent Garden Management. Once sets and costumes were in the process of being made, it became increasingly clear that they were unsatisfactory – as Kenneth MacMillan told his wife Deborah, d “Even Walt Disney would have thought them over the top” – and Montresor’s designs were abandoned. With only six weeks before the first night, Peter Farmer was called in with formidable task of creating an alternative.
The critics’ reactions were inevitable. Farmer took most of the blame and there were also cavils at MacMillan’s imprints on the choreography. For Richard Buckle of The Sunday Times it was “a complete disaster”, “A fancy dress extravaganza and an upsetting evening”, Alexander Bland of The Observer complained. “The company got it on, but only just”, wrote Mary Clarke for Dancing Times. Clarke was the only critic to note the harshness of the press’s judgement on Peter Farmer. In the light of the reaction, The Royal Ballet did not, as intended, bring the production to the United States in the following year.
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 15 March 1973
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Leslie Edwards, Gerd Larsen, Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Ronald Plaisted, Alexander Grant, Deanne Bergsma, Jennifer Penney, Julian Hosking, Laura Connor, Peter Fairweather, Alfreda Thorogood, Murray Kilgour, Anita Young, Wayne Eagling, Lesley Collier, David Ashmole, David Drew
Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty
Design: Peter Farmer
In 1973 Kenneth MacMillan revisited Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sinswhich he had previously choreographed for Western Theatre Ballet in 1961. Again he chose Ian Spurling as his design collaborator. While the production concept was mostly unchanged, MacMillan was attracted by the challenge of scaling up the work for a larger company and choreographically the 1973 ballet differs markedly from its 1961 predecessor.
This time his Dancing Anna was Jennifer Penney, while the jazz singer Georgia Brown was her singing alter ego. Lynn Seymour was a burlesque queen attended by two male transvestites while Vergie Derman confidently headed a tap chorus line. As in 1961, Spurling used giant versions of children’s building blocks to spell out the names of the various sins.
Two critics, Peter Williams and Philip Hope-Wallace, were of an age to have seen Balanchine’s original staging in the 1930s with Lotte Lenya and Tilly Losch. To Hope-Wallace, writing for The Guardian, MacMillan’s reworking suffered in the comparison and lacked the hard bitter edge of the original. “It was not the period piece I believe it should be; the sense of evil was evoked without strong climax”.
But Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers thought that Seven Deadly Sinspresented intrinsic difficulties which were unsolved by Balanchine in 1933 and which might be equally intractable for anyone else. Specifically he thought that MacMillan’s problem was one of scale; Seven Deadly Sinswas wrong for Covent Garden and might instead have been admirably suited to the Royal Ballet’s New Group. Nonetheless Williams conceded that choreographically it had “little gems which combined with the visual excitements of Spurling’s designing contribute to something that seemed a nice blast of decadent draught, blowing through the usual establishment Opera House offerings.”
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 19 July 1973
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Jennifer Penney, Georgia Brown
Music: Kurt Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins
Lyrics: Berthold Brecht
Design: Ian Spurling
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1973). Working score
Manon was MacMillan’s second three-act ballet as artistic director of the Royal Ballet. Anastasia, three years before, had met with such trenchant criticism that MacMillan opted for a more familiar operatic story and structure. He based his scenario on the 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The story had been used for operas by Massenet and Puccini, and adapted for films MacMillan had enjoyed.
clip courtesy of The Royal Opera House.
He was advised to steer clear of Puccini’s score for Manon Lescaut (already in the Royal Opera repertoire) and go for lesser-known music by Massenet. Leighton Lucas, a former dancer with the Ballets Russes who had become a conductor for ballet and a composer of film scores, was asked to compile and orchestrate a selection of Massenet’s music. Extracts come from overtures, opera ballets and incidental music for plays as well as from once obscure operas and oratorios. Hilda Gaunt, the company pianist, assisted MacMillan when he began to choreograph by suggesting, and playing, suitable music for the various pas de deux – always his starting point.
He had chosen Antoinette Sibley as Manon and Anthony Dowell as Des Grieux, giving them both a copy of Prévost’s novel to read in preparation for their roles. He had completed three of their key pas de deux when Sibley was injured, out of action for several months. MacMillan finished the ballet with Jennifer Penney as Manon. Sibley had recovered in time for the first night. Penney danced the role in the 1982 Royal Ballet video, with Dowell as Des Grieux and David Wall as Lescaut.
MacMillan was quoted as saying that he found his clue to Manon’s behaviour in her background of poverty: ‘Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor. Poverty in that period was the equivalent of long, slow death’. Nicholas Georgiadis’s designs reflect the precarious division between opulence and degradation in pre-Revolutionary France. (The ballet is set later in the 18th century than Prévost’s novel.) Tiers of rags drape the background in the first two acts, half-hidden behind the architectural sets. Demi-monde characters flaunt their finery while beggars, thieves and prostitutes ply their trades.
Georgiadis researched the period in depth, drawing on images from paintings and etchings for his costumes and settings: the sinister ratcatcher and the girl dressed as a pretty boy, for example, come from18th century pictures. Later designers for other companies’ productions have been less specific about the ballet’s social context.
In Act I, Manon is on her way to enter a convent when her stage-coach stops at an inn. Her brother, Lescaut, is there on an outing with a louche group of acquaintances from Paris. He prepares to sell his teenage sister to the highest bidder, Monsieur G.M, but she runs off with a young student, Des Grieux, who has charmed her with his ardour.
Their idyllic affair in Des Grieux’s lodging is running out of money when Lescaut arrives with Monsieur G.M in tow. G.M. offers Manon luxuries she cannot resist. She abandons Des Grieux to become a kept woman.
At the start of Act II, she makes an entrance on the arm of G.M at a party in Madame X’s hotel particulier, where every woman is for sale. Des Grieux is reluctantly present, brought by drunken Lescaut. Although Manon delights in being the centre of attention, she is torn between her desire for material rewards and her first love for Des Grieux. She conspires in a scheme for Des Grieux to fleece G.M in a game of cards, but his inept cheating is soon exposed. The lovers make their escape during the brawl that follows.
They are discovered in Des Grieux’s lodgings by Monsieur G.M and the militia, who have arrested Lescaut. Lescaut is shot and killed and Manon is detained, to be deported as a prostitute.
Act III opens with a dockside scene in the port of New Orleans. The latest batch of bedraggled deportees arrives, with Manon among them. Des Grieux has accompanied her to the penal colony to share her exile. The gaoler of the colony forces himself on Manon; Des Grieux breaks in and stabs him to death.
In the final scene, the lovers have fled into the swamps of Louisiana. Manon, delirious, hallucinates episodes from her past before collapsing and dying in the arms of Des Grieux.
Although Manon was well-received by the public, critics had reservations about the ballet’s structure and the characters’ motives. Some were taken aback by the amoral nature of the heroine, more unusual in a ballet than in an opera. ‘Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company . . . the most effective character, in fact, becomes Lescaut himself’, wrote Mary Clarke in The Guardian. ‘An appalling waste of lovely Antoinette Sibley, who is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger’, opined Jane King in the Morning Star. While most critics appreciated the quality of the choreography, especially for the three main roles, they found the ballet too long. (Cuts were made after the first season at the start of the third act, speeding up the action.) In an extensive review in The Financial Times, Andrew Porter, who disliked the Massenet score, praised the distinction of the choreography, dancing and designs, predicting that Manon would ‘certainly reward repeated observation and generations of performers’.
It has. Manon herself has altered as different dancers have taken on the role. Antoinette Sibley saw her as a girl ‘who allowed it all to happen to her . . .I don’t think she’s a schemer - she only makes decisions when she has to’. Lynn Seymour made her more ruthless: she and her brother are ‘cut from the same cloth, both bandits, using all they have to achieve what they want . . . she broke the rules and the punishment crushed her’. Natalia Makarova understood her as an instinctive creature who lives for the moment, ‘extracting from it all the excitement she can. At the same time she fully knows that the day will come when she must pay the price…. for the pleasure of living fully’. Sylvie Guillem’s guileful Manon used her sexual allure to survive in a male-dominated world. Des Grieux’s misfortune was to have strayed into her path just as she was discovering her power. Where other Manons die as desperate victims, limp as rags, Guillem fought on, defying death itself.
The three leading roles continue to attract new interpreters as the ballet is performed by companies around the world. Male dancers often alternate the roles of Des Grieux and Lescaut, as Dowell and Wall used to do. When the Paris Opera Ballet took Manon into its repertoire in 1991, a legal wrangle resulted in MacMillan’s ballet being re-titled L’Histoire de Manon. The heir to Massenet’s estate had objected to possible confusion between the opera and the ballet. Henceforth, the ballet has been known in Europe (with the exception of the United Kingdom) as L’Histoire de Manon and in the rest of the world simply as Manon.
In July 1974 Lord Drogheda relinquished the chairmanship of the Royal Opera House which he had held for 17 years. The farewell gala held in his honour was produced by Frederick Ashton. Kenneth MacMillan’s contribution was a pas de deux to Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. John Percival of The Times wrote: “It used Donald MacLeary’s admirable strength and skill as a partner to display the lithe line of Natalia Makarova, slipping through his arms or between his legs, sometimes held diagonally across his chest with her angular arms characteristically outstretched.”
First performance: Covent Garden, 17 July 1974
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Donald MacLeary, Natalia Makarova
Music: Igor Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements
Elite Syncopations had its premiered just seven months after Manon – and is MacMillan at his most playful. He had been planning a ragtime ballet even before George Roy Hill’s use of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as the title-track for his film The Sting revived popular interest in Joplin’s music. Two other ballets of the period were also choreographed to Joplin rags. These were Barry Moreland’s Prodigal Son for London Festival Ballet and Alfonso Catá’s and Kent Stowell’s Ragtime for Frankfurt Ballet.
The curtain opens as Elite Syncopation’s cast dance wildly on a virtually bare stage. On a rostrum at the back is a band of twelve players led by a pianist (at the premiere Philip Gammon, with members of the Covent Garden orchestra). The setting might be a competition in a louche dancehall in the Mississipi Delta at the turn of the last century, where the ballet’s characters flirt, dance and vie with each other for the limelight. There is no real plot; just a succession of rags, cakewalks and slow drags which demand virtuosity and comic flair.
The designer was Ian Spurling, with whom MacMillan has already collaborated on Seven Deadly Sins. The costumes are dazzlingly garish, a riot of gaudy and inventive colour. For the dancers there are sassy lycra unitards, variously patterned with arrows, stars and stripes, buttons and bows. The band’s costumes are toned-down versions of the 1900 fashions so extravagantly exaggerated on the dancers’ bodies. In both scenery and costume Spurling’s designs underscored the informal - and almost improvisatory - quality of the ballet and contributed greatly to its enduring success.
Like Danses Concertantes, MacMillan’s first work for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, Elite Syncopations is a ‘dance concert’ whose individual sections are watched by other dancers not performing at the time. In the triple bill at which it was premiered, Elite Syncopations contrasted with the seriousness of Frederick Ashton’s Scénes de ballet and MacMillan’s own Song of the Earth.
Elite Syncopations was a hit with audiences in London, as it would be later in Canada and the United States. For Covent Garden regulars it was a chance to see favourite dancers letting their hair down: in the first night cast, Monica Mason’s witty and showgirlish Calliope Rag; the Alaskan Ragfor the tall elegant Vergie Derman and the diminutive Wayne Sleep; for Michael Coleman a spectacular solo, shot through with rhythmic wit; and the engaging Bethena rag-waltz for Merle Park and Donald MacLeary.
According to Noel Goodwin, writing for Dance and Dancers, MacMillan had choreographed several more rags than he eventually used in the ballet. Even on a second viewing Goodwin wrote, Elite Syncopations was ‘cheerfully diverting’. He continued: “Much of my enjoyment came from watching some of the Royal Ballet’s best and most distinctive principals displaying new facets of their artistry in the choreography MacMillan devised for them.”
When in 1976 the Royal Ballet brought Elite Syncopations to the United States, Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times’dance critic, was unstinting. “The ballet is fun”, she enthused. “Here is Mr MacMillan in full verve. That’s entertainment.”
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 7 October 1974
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Merle Park, Donald Macleary, Monica Mason, Michael Coleman, Jennifer Penney, David Wall, Vergie Derman, Wayne Sleep, Wayne Eagling, Jennifer Jackson, Judith How, David Drew, David Adams
Music: Scott Joplin, Scott Hayden, Paul Pratt, Joseph F. Lamb, Max Morath, Donald Ashwander, Robert Hampton
Design: Ian Spurling
Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1974) Preliminary Master Score
Television: BBC, 21 September 1975
Kenneth MacMillan devised The Four Seasons as a showcase for the Royal Ballet’s strength in depth from corps to soloists and principals; just two months previously the corps had received the Evening Standard ballet award for outstanding contribution to dance in 1974.
MacMillan, advised by the critic Andrew Porter, chose music from three Verdi operas, principally the Sicilian Vespersballet divertissement and similarly balletic sections from I Lombardi and Don Carlos. Along with MacMillan’s recent choice of composer in Manon, Massenet, his resort to Verdi seemed to mark MacMillan’s turn to an older musical tradition (a contrast to the Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich of some of his earlier ballets).
The ballet opened with series of ensemble dances; intricate footwork on pointe for women with soaring beating jumps for the men, danced according to Mary Clarke in Dancing Times, “so impeccably that it would be cruel to the dancers (although perhaps kinder to their feet?) to cut it short.” Then came a series of classical variations, the Winter pas de trois for Donald MacLeary, Marguerite Porter and Vergie Derman; Spring pas de quatre for Lesley Collier, Michael Coleman, David Ashmole and Wayne Eagling); a languorous Summerpas de deux for Monica Mason and David Wall; finally, three gypsies, Anthony Dowell, Jennifer Penney and Wayne Sleep in Autumn.
Mary Clarke was full of praise for MacMillan’s “imagination and invention”. Peter Williams of Dance and Dancersthought it “good to see so many dancers so well used and displayed. With much pruning and by possibly using just a plain cyclorama, The Four Seasons could become the kind of ‘defilé’ ballet that the repertory has long needed.
The original design for The Four Seasons (1975) by Peter Rice seemed vaguely north Italian meets Bavaria and were too overpowering and specific. The dance moved more freely in the more unlocalised designs of Deborah Williams when the ballet was redesigned in 1980.
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 5 March 1975
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Vergie Derman, Marguerite Porter, Donald MacLeary, Lesley Collier, Michael Coleman, David Ashmole, Wayne Eagling, Monica Mason, David Wall, Anthony Dowell, Jennifer Penney, Wayne Sleep
Design: Peter Rice (costumes redesigned by Deborah Williams, 1980)
Benesh notation score: Diana Curry (1980). Master score.
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
Requiem was MacMillan’s tribute to his friend John Cranko, who had died unexpectedly three years earlier. They had known each other since 1946, when both were students at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and soon to become members of the touring company. South African-born Cranko knew from early on that he was to become a choreographer; MacMillan took longer to discover his vocation.
Cranko had gone on to become artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet from 1961 until his death in 1973. He gave MacMillan ready access to the Stuttgart company until their friendship soured in 1970. When MacMillan was ready to create a requiem ballet, the music he chose was vetoed by the Royal Opera House board of governors. Certain board members declared that setting a ballet to Fauré’s sacred music would offend religious sensibilities. MacMillan turned instead to Marcia Haydée, by then artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, asking if she would welcome the Fauré Requiem as a memorial to Cranko. She accepted without hesitation, confident that the Stuttgart opera company would provide the singers the choral work required.
The ballet was a portrait of the Stuttgart ballet company as a community coming to terms with the loss of a much-loved leader. Haydée, still dancing as well as directing, was the central figure embodying their grief before consoling them. Although the choreography was created on specific dancers, who were Cranko’s favourites as well as MacMillan’s, the roles are generic: the performers are sometimes human mourners, sometimes angels or spirits. MacMillan based many of the choreographic images on William Blake’s symbolic drawings and paintings, though he did not show the dancers the illustrations he had in mind.
A huddled mass of mourners enter to the Introitus, hammering their fists in anger, their mouths open in silent howls of grief. They raise the Haydée figure aloft as if she were an offering; she rolls on a sea of hands, a soul on a journey to becoming a blessed spirit. She dances a pas de deux in the Offertorium and the Sanctuswith two different men, who have their own anguished solos. Her solo to the Pie Jesu, a prayer for eternal peace, is a marvel of simplicity. She touches the ground – the Earth – as though exploring the light falling upon it. She returns at the end of the Agnus Deito comfort a grieving young woman, suspended above her by a group of men like an angel of mercy bestowing a blessing.
In the final section, In Paradisum, the company gathers around a pool of light as if witnessing the departure of a soul to heaven. Women are flown in from the wings, lifted by men with upstretched arms. At the end, all depart in a procession, backs to the audience, leaving the stage bathed in white light.
Yolanda Sonnabend’s set consists of tall fibreglass panels lit to appear translucent, with a white backcloth and floor. Costumes are lycra body-tights, the torsos painted with striations resembling veins and muscles. Sonnabend based them on Vesalius’s anatomical studies and Blake’s illustrations of bodies in extremis. One of the male soloists wears only a loin-cloth, making him resemble a biblical figure. The central woman is distinguished from the others by a semi-transparent chiffon shift. MacMillan told Sonnabend that he was aiming for a similar spareness to the designs for The Song of the Earth, the work Requiem most closely resembles.
Requiem was well-received in Stuttgart and in Washington, D.C, when the Stuttgart Ballet took it on tour to the United States six months later. Clive Barnes in The New York Timesand John Percival in The Times, both known to be harsh critics of MacMillan’s work on occasion, praised the ballet and reproached the Royal Ballet for missing an important work by its own choreographer. MacMillan had given the Stuttgart Ballet exclusive rights to Requiem for six years. The Royal Ballet took it into the repertoire in 1983, where it joined Voluntaries, Glen Tetley’s 1973 tribute to John Cranko.
First performance: Württembergische Staatstheater, Stuttgart, 28 November 1976
Company: Stuttgart Ballet
Cast: Marcia Haydée, Birgit Keil, Richard Cragun Egon Madsen, Reid Anderson
Music: Gabriel Fauré, Requiem
Design: Yolanda Sonnabend
Benesh notation score: Jane Bourne, Georgette Tsinguirides (1976). Working score
“I am a skater”, John Curry told Time magazine in December 1978. “I believe that the word ‘skater’ has the same value as the word ‘dancer’”. “In fact”, Time explained, “Curry is both an ice skater who dances and a ballet dancer who ice skates.” Indeed, Curry, who in 1976 won the Olympic Gold medal for figure skating, would, if parental opposition had not prevented him, have rather been a ballet dancer. After his Olympic success, he channelled his ambitions into extending the grammar of skating and to creating a style far removed from the conventions of competition and of commercial ice shows. He had distinct affinity for purity of classical line and the virtuosity of his technique was altogether exceptional among skaters of the day.
“One of the happiest experiences I ever had”, Curry told the UPI press agency, “was when I met Sir Kenneth and he said to me, 'I want to do a ballet for you. Will you let me?' Well, you can imagine what my answer was!'' So it was that MacMillan choreographed a piece for Curry’s Theatre of Skating, as too did Twyla Tharp. Peter Martins and Norman Maen.
The stage of London’s Cambridge Theatre was enlarged and a specially designed ice-rink laid. According to John Percival in The Times, MacMillan’s Feux Follets (‘Will-o’-the-wisps’) revealed “the seamless flow which is a speciality of the Curry style. Capricious changes of direction and multitudinous spins match the will-o’-the-wisp connotations of Liszt’s piano solo. In her review, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times singled out MacMillan’s as one of the works which best came to terms with the medium of ice. “Mr MacMillan’s Feux Follets” she wrote, “looked as if it could only be performed on ice – a series of whirlwind turns with Mr Curry shooting out like the firefly of the title.” Arlene Croce of The New Yorker, was impressed with “a manége of turns that, except for the extraordinary stamina it would take to get through it on dry land, might well have been choreographed for Anthony Dowell.” And Newsweek’s Hubert Saal wrote that in “in MacMillan's Feux Follets Curry comes close to equalling the dazzle of his great Olympic routine-this time with real involvement in the music.”
James Kennedy in The Guardian, while impressed with the choreography and with Curry’s own technique, were doubtful about the ultimate worth of the enterprise: “Much though Curry’s own skating has benefited from the balletic influence, their line cannot after all rid itself of the encumbrance of those heavy line destroying skates. As an art form skating has something to offer, but it is all a bit like ballet in big boots.”
First performance: Cambridge Theatre London, 2 December 1976
Company: Theatre of Skating
Cast: John Curry
Music: Liszt, Transcendental Study No 5.
Design: Nadine Bayliss
For the gala at Covent Garden to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Kenneth MacMillan made a new work set to the festive dances from Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana. Britten’s original was commissioned to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953 and it harked back to Elizabeth’s illustrious namesake, the Virgin Queen, hailed with cries of ‘Gloriana’ after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Queen Elizabeth I was an enthusiastic dancer – even “danced La Volta high”. In MacMillan’s choreography she is not a spectator merely but an active participant, even to the point of being turned upside down by her courtiers in the course of a pas de quatre. “The deep arabesques and unorthodox supported turns were not entirely majestic, noted John Percival of The Times. “No complaints however about the choreographic invention for a group of six attendant gentlemen who began the proceedings with an exhilaratingly boisterous entry, full of jumps, hand-slappings and turns."
First performance: Covent Garden, 30 May 1977
Company: The Royal Ballet
Cast: Lynn Seymour, Wayne Eagling, Michael Coleman, Stephen Beagley, Graham Fletcher
Music: Benjamin Britten, Gloriana
Design: Yolanda Sonnabend