Tuesday was the first stage and piano call for the revival of my late husband Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Isadora: everyone is on edge. There’s a huge journey before first night, only one week away. I came home wanting to slash my wrists! There’s a sign in the production office saying that for every person out there on stage, there are another three supporting backstage, unseen. I’d say there were 23. I stay clear of the choreography: that’s the business of Karl Burnett, the notator, and Julie Lincoln, who’s staging it for me. I’m a painter, my input is in the visual departments — costumes, wigs, props, set, the stage picture — and in this production there are new technical elements in film and sound projection. A large team has been working away for months.
This revival of Isadora is a big responsibility: Kenneth’s original sprawled over two hours as he tried not only to tell Isadora Duncan’s story, but to get into her psychology, set her against her time, and present some sense of the extraordinary impact she made. She was an iconoclast who broke all the conventions at the end of the 19th century, who relished the tumultuous early 20th century until she was engulfed and swept aside by the speed at which things were happening and her own tragedy. He had a dancing Isadora and a speaking Isadora (she was constantly haranguing her audiences) and, as always, Kenneth wanted to use cutting-edge technical effects which weren’t possible in the old Covent Garden House. He had boundless interests which he brought into his ballets: everything fuelled his imagination and he was always pushing the envelope. He knew exactly what he wanted to extract from all that, but he never got the chance to rework Isadora.
We spent a long time trying to find a way to do justice to Kenneth’s ideas while cutting it down to the hour or so that Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, asked for four years ago. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett was magnanimous, allowing cuts to his score — and the breakthrough came when I met two film-makers, Lynne Wake and her husband Christopher Bird, who make brilliant use of period film to give Isadora her context. Kenneth would have leapt at their ideas.
On Thursday each cast gets a run- through to get a feel of how the timing works with the sound and film. Isadora’s commentary is now a voiceover, recorded with Nicola McAuliffe last summer; Andrew Bruce, the sound designer, has made it seem as if we’re inside her head as Isadora looks back on her life. No orchestra yet, so it’s still difficult to judge how things are going: it will bring a huge and essential extra dimension. There are costumes today, so the lighting designer John B. Read can begin to work his magic — vital to the storytelling and atmosphere: hot or cold, prosaic, romantic, mysterious. The film and soundtrack is fine-tuned, but it needs super-precise cueing, and I have to be clear about what I want changed. It’s no good saying ‘a tad earlier’; Johanna Adams, the stage manager, needs me to be specific to the second, as she works off the music score, cueing dancers, sound, film, lights, sets.
Edward Gordon Craig (Isadora’s first major lover) splits his trousers and two of the girls in the party scene get their feet caught in their dresses. The wardrobe people are all in the stalls: the changes will be made before we run again tomorrow. Wardrobe is a miracle: Barry Kay designed over 600 costumes for the original production in 1981 and we’ve been picking through them to find what can be used again, what has to be remade. Two of the really complicated dresses have simply disappeared, so we’ve had to remake entirely from the information that’s in the design ‘bible’. Nothing is too much trouble: if you’re doubtful about anything, they’ll willingly take the thing apart and redo it. Even if it means working long into the night.
The conductor Barry Wordsworth at last has the orchestra on Friday, bringing in all the emotional subtext — the romance, passion, power you can’t get with just a piano. The cues are really starting to work: the piece is getting tighter and tighter. We have two casts, the two Isadoras, Tamara Rojo and Isabelle McMeekan, each relishing the part, each very different, both marvellous. Merle Park, Kenneth’s original Isadora, was in the house, giving her input to the girls, passing on her experience. She said that the heart of the ballet is all there. What a relief. She also told me what she’d heard from an old Russian ballerina who’d seen Isadora dance. ‘She vos scandal, she had no knickers…’
One more run-through for each cast before the first night on Wednesday: if this were a commercial production, we’d now be going into weeks of previews before allowing the critics in. It’s madness that after four or five years of serious work, it goes on stage in under a week, to be saluted or damned in a single viewing.
Practically everything Kenneth did was savaged when it first appeared, and so he’s roaring with laughter in advance of this production. I’m sure of this as I’ve been getting regular spirit messages!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 14, 2009