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How MacMillan created ballets of unrivalled psychological depth

The choreographer was obsessed with emotion and behaviour, which manifested itself most memorably in his historical works, Anastasia and Mayerling.

By Alex Laffer (Former Editorial Assistant)

8 November 2016 at 5.40pm | 1 Comment

It is often repeated – somewhat misleadingly – that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Every time we move, we reveal things about ourselves. Think about this the next time you make your way to your seat in the Royal Opera House auditorium. You will be transmitting your excitement and anticipation in every movement. In ballet this goes further. Emotions, behaviour and narrative are explored and presented through dancers’ bodies. In Anastasia and Mayerling, choreographer Kenneth MacMillan goes even further. He brings to life historical characters, portraying their inner lives through emotive choreography.

MacMillan was obsessed with emotion and behaviour throughout his career, and often coupled this obsession with a focus on the outsider. He was influenced by the Angry Young Men of 1950s British theatre, and by emulating their focus on psychological realism – if not always their subject matter – he produced ballets of startling insight. These preoccupations are evident in Anastasia. Its structure merges the historical and psychological as the psychiatric patient Anna Anderson struggles with her identity, believing herself to the the Romanov Princess Anastasia.

Anderson is a lost soul, confused by her surroundings. ‘Memories’ of the past impinge on her perception of the present. As she dances, she is restrained by a vision of Rasputin, circled by a firing squad and visited by her family. She relives past traumas that may or may not be her own. Her movements portray her anxiety, her uncertainty, down to the finest detail: splayed fingers, stretched almost in supplication; uncomfortably angled elbows; arms pulled in protectively around her abdomen to be thrust out in despair. Macmillan builds on recognizable actions, but distorts them into Anderson’s idiosyncratic movement. We are invited to share in her experiences as she plays out her fractured version of history. But she remains a vulnerable outsider.

Connections can be found between Anderson and Rudolf, the troubled Crown Prince at the centre of Mayerling, even down to echoes in the choreography. Rudolf splays his fingers as he contemplates suicide in the third act. He repeatedly stretches his arms out, twisting far beyond what is comfortable, exaggerated by unusual hand positions, pulling them in to the nape of his neck to support a head that rolls in apparent agony – instantly recognizable to any audience as a symptom of physical and psychological distress.

Rudolf could be an unappealing mix of privilege and self-destruction. Yet MacMillan transforms him into something more complex and sympathetic. He portrays Rudolf’s shifting emotions and attitudes with psychological insight. Take Rudolf and Mary Vetsera’s pas de deux in the final act. In one sequence, Mary reaches for a gun before Rudolf forces her to put it down. She runs at him, leaping and swinging around him, arms encircling his neck. She flits away before returning to Rudolph’s embrace. He is both gentle, supporting her supine form in his arms, and forceful as he spins her around. He then grasps her upper arms, pulling her from one side of his body to the other, arching back his head in distress, before they both collapse on the floor. These movements, the precise placement and position, describe their relationship in microcosm – the passion and dependence, the tenderness and aggression.

MacMillan’s choreography is so effective at encouraging a kind of ‘kinaesthetic’ empathy: it prompts in us a propensity to mimic the movement of performers, and use this as a means to understand their emotions and behaviour. MacMillan provides the audience with the clues and details that allow us to engage with the rich emotional and psychological life of these historical characters, beautifully and harrowingly danced in Anastasia and Mayerling.

Anastasia runs 26 October–12 November 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 2 November 2016. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hans and Julia Rausing, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Richard and Delia Baker, The Tsukanov Family Foundation, Simon and Virginia Robertson and The Fonteyn Circle.

Mayerling runs 28 April–13 May 2017. Tickets go on general sale 24 January 2017.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hans and Julia Rausing, the Paul Ferguson Memorial Fund, Richard and Delia Baker, John and Susan Burns, The Gerald Ronson Family Foundation and Celia Blakey.

By Alex Laffer (Former Editorial Assistant)

8 November 2016 at 5.40pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged Anastasia, behaviour, by Kenneth Macmillan, empathy, identity, Kenneth MacMillan, Mayerling, Production, psychology

This article has 1 comment

  1. Enjoyed reading every word of this article! Fascinating!

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