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Kenneth MacMillan: The angry young man of ballet

The British choreographer transformed classical dance by looking to the influences of the theatre.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

27 May 2016 at 3.00pm | 2 Comments

‘I wanted dance to express something largely outside its experience’, said choreographer Kenneth MacMillan to Clement Crisp in a 1991 interview, and this desire is evident throughout his work.

Even in his ballets on relatively traditional themes, MacMillan pushes things to visceral extremes: Lady Capulet’s grief-stricken pounding of her chest at Tybalt’s death in Romeo and Juliet; the Salamander Prince’s haunting silent screams in The Prince of the Pagodas. But MacMillan also pushed the extremes of his art form from the late 1950s onwards, by engaging with subject matter never before seen on the ballet stage, inspired in part by the contemporary theatre of his day.

Even in his earliest works, sinister ideas are often prominent – most conspicuously in House of Birds, which The Times described upon its premiere in 1955 as containing ‘much to intrigue the eye, but much that is fundamentally repellent’. It is based on a Brothers Grimm story about a witch who transforms children into birds, before being pecked to death by her victims. Noctambules, made in 1956, likewise has a dark side, telling the story of a hypnotist who wreaks cruel revenge on a scornful audience, only to be rejected again when his spell breaks.

1956 was also the year that theatre's ‘angry young man’ John Osborne’s now-classic play Look Back in Anger was first performed at the Royal Court, shocking the theatre world with its uncompromising, fierce depiction of everyday life. ‘It made everything else in the theatre look so trivial’, wrote MacMillan years later, and his first artistic response was The Burrow, which had its premiere two years later. Redolent of the story of Anne Frank, the ballet is set in a single, sparsely decorated room which the 21 dancers are unable to leave. Its tense climax comes with a knock on the door – the sound they have all been dreading.

Young Canadian dancer Lynn Seymour won praise for her performance in The Burrow, and she would go on to create the central role in The Invitation in 1960. This ballet deals with the theme of sexual awakening. A girl and her cousin attract the attention of an older, unhappily married couple. The boy is ‘seduced’ by the wife, whereas the girl is brutally raped by the immediately regretful husband. Though the setting is early 20th-century rather than contemporary, the influence of Osborne's realism is bitingly clear in the frankness with which the events are depicted, horribly torn between the commonplace and the life-altering.

MacMillan returned to dark, near-realist scenarios frequently in his career, notably in early 1980s ballets Valley of Shadows, which tells the story of a Jewish family under the Nazis; and Different Drummer, based on the same murder story as Berg’s expressionist opera Wozzeck. The Judas Tree, his final work for The Royal Ballet in 1992, is another brutal, dark tale. This time the action is set on a construction site, where the workers violently vie for the attention of one woman. But the realism of the setting is deliberately at odds with the archetypal quality of the story: a contemporary setting reveals something timeless.

In some of his full-length ballets – Romeo and Juliet and Manon, for instance – MacMillan turned to more traditional material. Mayerling, on the other hand, has a period setting but some deeply sordid subject matter. And Anastasia, like The Judas Tree, is another example of how the contemporary and the timeless can merge together. The first two acts are set in Tsarist Russia – in true balletic tradition, to music by Tchaikovsky – but the third act moves to near-contemporary times. With a 20th-century score, this act examines the memories (real or imagined) of a woman who claims to have lived through the events depicted in the first two acts. Anastasia overall can hardly be described as realist – but, as in so many MacMillan works – tradition is boldly upended to deal with new realities.

Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration runs until 1 November 2017. Tickets are still available.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Liane Smith responded on 7 August 2016 at 2:25am Reply

    And not forgetting the sheer beauty and profoundness found in Song, Requiem and Gloria, also arguably never seen before on ballet stage.

  2. Francis Yeoh responded on 31 January 2018 at 12:25pm Reply

    An excellent insight into the 'angry young man's' artistic vision of Kenneth MacMillan. However, not unlike Frederick Ashton and his cohort John Cranko, MacMillan not only exploited his rich ballet heritage but also extended the language of ballet by assimilating contemporary and jazz vocabulary into his expressions of choreographic narrative. Without doubt, the complexity of his pas de deux brought even more unique ideas in expressing relationships. Also, he had extended the scope of so-called 'Abstract'/story-less ballets with the beauty of his choreographic expressions and imbued them with an aura of enormous 'meaning' and of even greater value, BEAUTY!

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