Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan Jann Parry

Faber, pp.758, 25

Kenneth MacMillan was once described as ‘the Francis Bacon of ballet’ — not an analogy that gets one very far, but there’s something in it.

Kenneth MacMillan was once described as ‘the Francis Bacon of ballet’ — not an analogy that gets one very far, but there’s something in it. His obsession with victims, outsiders and extreme psychological states reflects the panic in his own tortured and alienated psyche. His choreography contains a lot of silent screaming: it brutalises the human body as much as it beautifies it. Sex in his work is presented as a violent compulsion — often a rape — rather than an ecstatic release or an expression of love. Dark and destructive human impulses have more reality to him than hopeful or humane ones.

Some of his best ballets — notably Song of the Earth, Requiem and Gloria — confront the truth of mortality with a poetic lyricism that grows out of and into the music; some of his worst — Different Drummer, for example, the adaptation of Büchner’s Woyzeck after which Jann Parry’s rivetting biography is aptly named — seem invested with the B-picture sensibility of a bodice-ripping sado-masochist.

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Parry paints an unsparing, unsentimental portrait of a chronic depressive, pickled by alcohol and barbiturates which probably hastened his relatively early death at the age of 62 in 1992. Yet he was no monster, nor an emotional cripple. Macmillan could be affectionate, funny and very endearing in an Eyeorish sort of a way. He sustained long, loyal friendships and an extraordinarily happy marriage, despite what appears to have been an uncertain sexuality.

Above all, he worked on, creating nearly 100 different works over 40 years in a steady stream that was never deflected by either his dazzling success in the 1950s and 1960s or the stinking reviews and serious illness which dogged him in the 1970s and 1980s. He never stopped complaining and he never cheered up, but as an example of someone who could dust off disaster, roll up his sleeves and get on with the next job, he was positively heroic.

His grisly working-class childhood explains a lot. His Scottish father, gassed at the Somme, was a chicken farmer who lost out in the Depression and ended up struggling through odd jobs. His adored mother, who breastfed him until he was four, was an acutely embarrassing epileptic, who died when he was 12 and absent as an evacuee, leaving him with a hellish complex of unresolved feelings. ‘At her funeral, I felt like a stranger,’ he wrote. ‘A darkness settled on me like a cloak.’ That dark cloak never really lifted, as his many psychiatrists would later insist.

His escape route was the cinema — Judy Garland, Fred Astaire — and a path that led from Highland, tap and end-of-the-pier dancing to an inspiring local ballet teacher and a brave decision, made aged 14, to write to Ninette de Valois asking for an audition for her school at Sadler’s Wells. She took him on, just before the war ended, and he graduated into an elegant if not outstanding classical dancer.

But soon he developed neurotic stage fright, and turned to choreography. It was a good move, and the mid-1950s was a good time to make it. Ballet glowed at that point as a chic and youthful art form, which put MacMillan at the heart of a hip and louche Soho Boho set. Ashton and Balanchine appeared to be yesterday’s men, playing by the rules; Roland Petit and Jerome Robbins were pioneering a sexy, punchy realism. MacMillan embraced both the tradition and the innovation, cresting to success as ballet’s angry young man, keen to shock but still a master of the classical vocabulary. In four major full-length works — Romeo and Juliet, Anastasia, Manon and in particular his flawed masterpiece Mayerling — he created a grandly romantic idiom which won him huge popular success, even if the critics became increasingly sceptical.

His personal life was an odd business. He was never comfortable in the public eye, and hated being away from home. Camp and effete, he was to all appearances homosexual. Yet all Parry’s sleuthing fails to uncover evidence of any affairs with men, and his closest relationships were all with women, most of them of a mothering rather then sex-goddess kind. At his lowest ebb in the early 1970s, he had the supreme good fortune to meet his magnificent wife Deborah, a young Australian painter, who gave him not only a beloved daughter but also the support, companionship and stability that made his later years his happiest.

Meticulous, authoritative and unflappable, Parry has done an excellent job in elucidating this fascinating but somewhat tiresomely self-centred and over-sensitive man. Her authoritative biography will join Julie Kavanagh’s portrait of Ashton and Meredith Daneman’s of Fonteyn as primary sources for the study of British ballet. Now we need someone to do a similarly thorough job on the mother of them all, Ninette de Valois.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Ballet, Biography, Non-fiction