Dance is an ephemeral art. It keeps few proper records of its products. Reputations are written in rumours and reviews. And by reputation, Kenneth MacMillan was the dark genius of British ballet — its destroyer, if you listen to some.
They think this country’s classical ballet reached its pinnacle under the Apollonian hand of Frederick Ashton, before MacMillan stomped in with his working-class neuroses and rape simulations and took ballet down to the psychological underworld. It’s an absurd reduction, since Ashton was quite as screwed up as MacMillan, but the notion persists of the two of them embodying opposite sides of the British ballet coin, order and chaos.
Both giants left the Royal Ballet dozens and dozens of ballets, which critics recorded were amazing things. But since their deaths 29 and 25 years ago, the giants have been generally edited down to a manageable, commercially productive core around the big storyballets: MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon, and Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and (at a pinch) Sylvia. But what to do about the dozens of short, more contemporarily interesting ballets. It’s been a cautionary, tragic tale to see how, since Ashton’s death, the large majority of his works have been pronounced officially extinct.
Given the rather melancholy note that most of these anniversaries tend to strike, this 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s death is finally giving us something to celebrate. A brave decision appears to have been made by the Royal Ballet to hand over the key to its cupboards to others who might be more curious.
Ballets are fragile texts, and revivals, such as Different Drummer and Isadora, have often gone badly, rather tempering enthusiasm for exploring further MacMillan’s famously ‘difficult’ oeuvre. And yet we can see from here, decades later, that MacMillan’s work, like that of Ashton, forms the creative and stylistic backbone of the great art of British ballet.
A few years ago, MacMillan’s widow, the artist Deborah Williams, started saying yes to the queuing international companies who wanted to dance the blockbusters. MacMillan’s Royal Ballet golden geese are now worldwide classics — the WC2 monopoly is over.
And now, the logical next step. All Britain’s ballet companies are being let into the MacMillan world, generously hosted by the Royal Ballet: in this celebration we’ll see Scottish and Northern dance him for the first time, English National Ballet will perform a Royal staple, and, best of all, there appear to be serious new steps being taken by independent groups to recover MacMillan shorts that appeared to be lost.
The implications of the role of changing film techniques in recovering lost works are the most exciting. MacMillan’s classical 1960 fairy tale Le Baiser de la fée has been recreated (danced by Scottish on 18 and 19 October). Film will be presented at the ‘New Wave Ballet’ evenings on 20 and 21 October of three long-lost, legendary breakthrough works, Laiderette, House of Birds and The Burrow. As a result, stage performances are being planned next spring at the Barbican.
The positivity is overdue. Even ifMacMillan’s art fed off the lifelong chip on his working-class shoulder, the tone damaged the range and beauty of his legacy. He would snipe in interviews about ‘the old boy network to which I’ve never belonged and I never will’, and about ballet fans’ ‘arrested development’. The drama of private deaths, the tragedy of sex, the violence of human impulses towards outsiders — these are the innards of the stories he wanted to tell in ballet. MacMillan’s Juliet, Manon, Crown Prince Rudolf: all die inside their private headspaces. And Anastasia and Isadora create insistent interior worlds that others do not understand. They’re real, present people.
There’s a marvellous piece of film on YouTube of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital morning. In it MacMillan’s favourite ballerina, Lynn Seymour, doesn’t lie like a well-mannered sleeping beauty but like a modern girl who has fallen asleep after lovemaking in her eye make-up, and wakes up smudged and sensuous. She dies ugly and heartrendingly, her feet unpointed. Old art form, new reality.
Seymour described him as both ‘lachrymose and comic’, ‘a sepulchral poet’. She also thought him exploitative, a ‘voyeur, a provocateur’. Performers in Manon or The Invitation or The Judas Tree or Mayerling (to name a few) have to make us believe in some extreme mindsets and activities, as rapists and rape victims, the suicidal and the murderous, in sexual orgasm. Seymour said that MacMillan, when creating his brooding pieces, wanted candid sexual discussion in the rehearsal studio: ‘Kenneth used it to tease and provoke, to stir the dancers’ awareness of their own sexuality and to that of others.’
It may sound to us office workers both thrilling and unappealing, but Pina Bausch and Lloyd Newson’s DV8 used similar methods to drill down through routine and end up with cathartic work, and even George Balanchine’s pure neoclassical tradition in New York was not without its protesters against his mental cruelty. Which is more exploitative of dancers? Balanchine’s ‘don’t think, just do’, or MacMillan’s insistence on knowing your sexual fantasy?
MacMillan’s mastery of traditional balletic arts, though, tends to be overlooked in the reactions generated by his subject matter. His fluent articulacy in using classical ballet’s specific vocabulary remains intact and faithful, no matter what he wants to say. But he came from the blood family of 1950s British theatre and he made ballet into modern drama by injecting sudden moments of pedestrianism, and trying out cinema tricks to manipulate the viewer’s eye, editing time and place (as in Romeo and Juliet and Manon, or Anastasia).
Where I find MacMillan remarkable, even beyond Ashton, is in his profoundly responsive adoption of a huge range of classical music. In his full-lengthers he uses the music more like a film score, which makes you more aware of the larger theatrical essentials of dramatic pacing and emotional content. But his one-act ballets, taut and idiosyncratic, are where his transmogrification of musical response into theatrical drama and dance aesthetic can become a profound dialogue between what’s heard and what’s seen.
The anxious, exploratory music of his parents’ war-damaged generation was his psychic home: unpredictable tonality and rhythm, the 12-tone Europeans, Diaghilev’s French stable, post-war Brits, the Soviets. In a half-hour span, with one of these in the pit, MacMillan could cut sharp and specifically evocative paths through claustrophobic psychic landscapes of damaged siblings and sinister fairy tales, profoundly sad, often deliberately disturbing chamber pieces about how ‘only the lovely can be loved’, as Clive Barnes once put it. They were evolutionary landmarks to some viewers, horrible anomalies to others, who resisted seeing the explicitness of dance movements invoking incest, rape, sexual violence.
MacMillan commissioned just one major ballet score: for his last, most controversial ballet, The Judas Tree (from 24 October), in which Brian Elias’s metallic gamelans shrouded a Docklands building site with an awful tension. MacMillan told his biographer Jann Parry that ‘There are things in me that are untapped and that have come out in this ballet that I find frightening. This is a dark one.’
This ‘dark one’ is central to the Royal Opera House celebration, having its sixth run since its 1992 première, as if they’re still trying to find its audience. For first-time viewers of The Judas Tree, the way the woman keeps coming back to haunt or taunt the men, her switches between innocent and provocateur, is for some a fascinating theme of female power; to others, so realistic as to be actual violation.
I don’t know what I think about MacMillan’s anti-heroines until I’m actually watching them. Our times alter our responses — films like Daphne and Elle, news of Trump or Harvey Weinstein. Ballet-dancing itself has altered so much since 1992. Split legs and quasi-coital intimacies are now routine athletic language in modern ballet, in tiny pants with bare legs. In 1992 the women always wore tights; the copulatory simulations were kept at an illusory distance. Today tights are rather vieux jeu, but I do hope they keep them on.
Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, a collaboration between six British dance companies, is at the Royal Opera House until 1 November.