Kenneth MacMillan was commissioned by John Cranko to create The Sphinx for four of his principal dancers at Stuttgart Ballet. It is named for the ballet’s opening frieze; Marcia Haydée, resting sphinx like across the outstretched hands of Madsen, Cragun and Clauss. Each dancer has a variation. Sphinx ends with the three men, this time crouched on the floor on hand and knee; Haydée, again in a sphinx like pose straddled across their backs, seems to chop their heads off with a giant split-step. “In between”, wrote Horst Koegler, in Dance and Dancers was “the strangest, most distant and least MacMillan like ballet I have ever seen.”

The choreography, spiky and piquant, had a ritual like quality with, in Koegler’s words, Haydée as a “perversely smiling and yet so very distant Coptic Turandot.” Haydée also signalled a series of riddles with her fingers, while standing on pointe, a recurring sequence of 4-2-3, which mystified audiences and critics alike. According to Edward Thorpe, the theme was “the familiar one of the Theban monster – an animal with a woman’s head – who asked travellers: what is it that goes upon two legs in the morning three legs in the afternoon and four legs in the evening? Those who could not solve the riddle were killed.” (The answer: a man in his progress from crawling infancy, to maturity on two feet and a stick support in old age)

Koegler had failed to solve the riddle: “For certainly I had arrived at a completely wrong solution, identifying the Sphinx with the German Opera, Berlin, and the three solver-victims with its procession of frustrated ballet-masters and choreographers who tried in vain to master its complex ballet problems.”

The Sphinx was performed once and was not notated.

  • First performance: Württemburgische Staatstheater, Stuttgart, 1 June, 1968

  • Company: Stuttgart Ballet

  • Cast: Marcia Haydée, Egon Madsen, Richard Cragun, Heinz Clauss

  • Music: Darius Milhaud, Five Small Symphonies (extracts)

  • Design: Elisabeth Dalton