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.
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.