Kenneth macmillan

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Royal Ballet’s MacMillan triple bill reviewed

My feelings about the genius of Kenneth MacMillan have always been volatile, but in the course of the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill, they veered even more wildly than usual between uncomplicated delight, awed reverence and embarrassment. A revival of his early Danses Concertantes, firing off Stravinsky at his most effervescent and designed with exuberantly colourful Festival-of-Britain jazziness by Nicholas Georgiadis, provided half an hour of pure joy. Stylistically an exercise in the neoclassicism that dominated the postwar era, it’s witty, chic and upbeat, exploring sharp angles rather than smooth curves and lyrical lines. MacMillan’s choreographic invention is profligate, with little twists and unexpected turns, all infused with an infectious

Same old, same old: Wayne McGregor’s Untitled, 2023, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

My witty friend whispered that Wayne McGregor’s new ballet Untitled, 2023 put her in mind of Google HQ – it’s certainly a mint-cool, squeaky-clean, future-perfect affair. The set by Carmen Herrera, subtly lit by Lucy Carter, suggests infinite space and distant horizons. The costumes by Burberry are streamlined and sexless. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s vaporous score hovers over it all in a meditative trance. Ordinary human emotions struggle to express themselves in this brave new world: we have left planet Earth. McGregor’s strengths and weaknesses are highlighted: on the credit side, there’s his energy and intelligence, his sophisticated visual taste, his empowering of young talent, his open questioning of boundaries, and readiness

A solid evening’s entertainment: Rambert’s Peaky Blinders ballet reviewed

Being of a squeamish sensibility and prejudiced by a low opinion of recent BBC drama, I can claim only a superficial acquaintance with Peaky Blinders. So my response to The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, a new ballet drawing on the popular television series about gangland Birmingham during the 1920s, is that of a rank outsider. Produced by Rambert (in association with Birmingham Hippodrome), it represents the company’s admirable attempt to find a broader audience and move out of the modern dance ghetto – hence presenting the show at the new Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park rather than Sadler’s Wells. A spot check on the demographic suggests that it succeeded: but

Seeing the light | 19 October 2017

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

Impressive interpretations marred by cuts: Scottish Ballet’s The Scandal at Mayerling reviewed

Sneer all you like at its prolixities and vulgarities but Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling remains a ballet that packs an exceptionally powerful emotional punch. Weathering a grapeshot of adverse criticism at its Covent Garden première in 1978, it has comfortably stood the test of time and entered the international pantheon. With a plushly throbbing score culled from Liszt’s oeuvre and an intriguing historical setting (the gratin of Habsbsurg Vienna in the 1880s), it’s a gift to large companies in search of full-length romantic drama beyond the rut of Swan Lake and Giselle. Because a production requires resources beyond the reach of medium-scale troupes, MacMillan’s widow Deborah has now sanctioned Scottish Ballet

Swaggerific display of pumping chests and crotch-grabbing struts: NYDC’s Speak Volumes reviewed

Last week I attended a dance performance in person for the first time since March last year. If you’d asked me to choose the ideal show for the occasion, I’d have probably picked something with marquee names and lavish costumes — a classical ballet gala, or maybe one of Matthew Bourne’s glittering productions. As it happens, I watched teenagers in bomber jackets snarl at each other in between dance-offs — and actually, it was just the ticket. Mental health issues among teens have rocketed during the pandemic, and this crew, from National Youth Dance Company, drive the point home with a hard-nosed production that doesn’t ask so much as command

I miss the faint hiss of a spinning foot: Royal Ballet – Live reviewed

Ballet lovers driven square-eyed by a drip feed of livestreaming and archive footage have been pining for the patter of tiny satin feet. Last month the UK’s big ballet companies began to emerge from hibernation, playing small-scale work to thin, socially distanced houses. Some, such as Birmingham Royal and English National ballets, took the opportunity to broaden their audience’s conservative tastes with otherwise tricky-to-shift programmes of new work. Others, like the Royal and Northern ballets, offered choreographic comfort food. After testing the waters with last month’s Back on Stage gala, danced before an audience of 400 dance students and health workers, the Royal Ballet began its autumn season with two

The Royal Ballet’s return was joyous – but the presenter was gushing and witless

Mothballed since March when it danced a farewell Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet made a triumphant and joyous return to Covent Garden last Friday, performing a string of ancient and modern works before an invited audience of 400. Meanwhile, around the country (and the world) ballet-starved viewers paid £16 to watch a Vimeo livestream. Jonathan Lo and the 83-strong orchestra, enjoying added elbow room in the stalls, set the tone for an emotional evening with the Sleeping Beauty overture — the ballet that famously reopened the Opera House after the second world war. It was a natural and poignant choice, but director Kevin O’Hare hadn’t succumbed to ancestor worship. Balanchine,

Manon can be magnificent, this one was merely meh

Manon: minx or martyr? There are two ways to play Kenneth MacMillan’s courtesan. Is Manon an ingénue, a guileless country girl, pimped by her own brother and corrupted by Monsieur G.M.? Or is she a pleasure hunter, a man-manipulator, a schemer out for all she can get? In the Royal Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, Sarah Lamb is somewhere in the unsatisfactory middle. Primrose innocence in the first act, half-hearted harlot in the second, shorn urchin in the third. Ryoichi Hirano, as Manon’s brother Lescaut, knows what he’s about. Hirano has a nice line in matadors and caped scoundrels. Every duplicitous turn, every dismissive flick of the wrist, speaks

Menace and magnificence

Two households, both alike in dignity. Capulets in red tights, Montagues in green. Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet opens in a piazza where the clash of swords makes a fifth section of the orchestra. Strings, woodwind, brass, percussion… and steel. If Shakespeare’s young bloods and blades once seemed remotely Renaissance, made romantic by distance, Verona’s knife-crime crisis is now horribly real and present. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio (Matthew Ball, Valentino Zucchetti and James Hay) make a convincing gang: pumped-up, freewheeling, anarchic. They goose the harlots, twit the nurse and goad each other in reckless acts of lads, lads, lads bravado. Their bragging, ragging gatecrashers’ dance is a tour de force.

Some like it hot | 14 March 2019

Blame Kenneth MacMillan. The great Royal Ballet choreographer of the 1960s, 70s and 80s was convinced that narrative dance could and should extend its reach beyond boy meets sylph and began wrestling with heavyweight essay subjects such as the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Mayerling) or the last of the Romanovs (Anastasia). And now look: Queen Victoria, the pointe shoe years, a bold, good-looking ballet that almost triumphs over the absurdity of its premise. Cathy Marston’s latest work for Northern Ballet follows the success of her 2016 Jane Eyre, a spare, clever reworking of the novel that will be danced by American Ballet Theatre in New York this June. Victoria,

The Glums in tights

If you like the BBC’s Les Misérables, you’ll love English National Ballet’s Manon. Manon, in Kenneth MacMillan’s telling, is The Glums in tights. Alina Cojocaru dances Manon, an 18th-century courtesan in Paris, pimped by her brother Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio). She falls for Des Grieux (Joseph Caley), young, handsome, penniless, love’s young dream, and is later ensnared by the older, richer, crueller Monsieur GM. Cojocaru is sublime. ‘That’s her!’ whispered my neighbour in the stalls as Manon fluttered through the crowd at the inn. With Des Grieux, Cojocaru is sweet and expressive, tender and teasing. As Monsieur’s mistress, in diamonds and furs, she dances with quiet power and cold command. In

Chilling out

The Royal Ballet’s Les Patineurs is January as you would wish it. No slush, no new-year sales, no streaming chest colds. Winter, as imagined by Frederick Ashton, is an eternal ice rink lit by Chinese lanterns hung from icing-sugar branches. Ashton’s choreography is ingenious. His dancers really do seem to glide, the boards of the stage to freeze. You believe completely that they are on skates, not slippers. The men wear sheepskin jackets, the women bonnets and polka-dot tulle. Sleigh bells ring and fresh flakes fall. The ensemble slip, slide and dance a skating conga. Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell are a Torvill-and-Dean dream in the pas de deux. Kaneko

MacMillan’s #MeToo minefield

Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling is a #MeToo minefield. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary is a serial seducer, a man of many mistresses, a grabber of princesses. Were he alive and kissing today, he’d check himself into an Arizona rehab clinic. In 1889, it was laudanum and a loaded pistol. Rudolf ought to be tormented, driven by ennui and the oppression of the imperial court to darker and darker thrills. Ryoichi Hirano, who opens the Royal Ballet’s 2018/19 season as the Crown Prince, is not dark enough. It is his debut as Rudolf and his performance is studied and contained. Hirano is handsome, tall, Apollonian. He was electrifying in MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations

A Manon to remember

The Shaolin monks are no strangers to the stage. Their home in Dengfeng is a major stop on the Chinese tourist trail and their lives of quiet contemplation (and shouty martial arts practice) are regularly punctuated by spells on the international circuit with Kung Fu extravaganzas like Wheel of Life and Shaolin Warriors. Quite how they square this six-shows-a-week-plus-matinees life with the whole monk ethic is a question for their Abbot or, just possibly, their agent (Shaolin Intangible Assets Management Co. Ltd. Yes, really). But they put on a very good show, the best of which is Sutra, devised by Belgo-Moroccan dancemaker Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and performed in an installation

The unhappy Prince

A tragic flaw is one thing — every hero should have one — but Mayerling’s Rudolf, a syphilitic drug addict with a mother fixation and a death wish, is a very hard man to love. Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 ballet, currently being revived at Covent Garden, tells the complex tale of the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary and his 1889 suicide pact with his teenage mistress. The narrative unfolds in flashback with cinematic sweep to a cunning patchwork of 30 Franz Liszt compositions invisibly mended by John Lanchbery. The grandeur of the Viennese court is deftly sketched by designer Nicholas Georgiadis. Vast interiors are evoked with a swath of fabric and the

Mistaken identity

The Romanovs were a hot topic in 1967: it was the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, memories of Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar winning Anastasia were still fresh and Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra was on every bestseller list. Kenneth MacMillan was ‘sick to death of fairy tales’ and his one act treatment of the Anna Anderson story, with its groundbreaking use of archive film and uncompromising Martinu score, was a ballet for grown ups that wrestled with the very nature of human identity. Lynn Seymour, the greatest dance actress of her generation, created the role of the mental patient who might (or might not) be a Grand Duchess and the

The bitchy world of ballet

Memoirs of old men, baldly, tend to be tricky. Sir Peter Wright, one of the founding pillars of the British ballet establishment, is now 90, and a charmingly chatty man; but I’ve personally never found him reluctant to get to the point when asked. As inaugural director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, director of Sadler’s Wells Ballet and associate director of the Royal Ballet, he has spent more than half a century inside the amazing British ballet story. I had high expectations of these copious memoirs. So it’s a great pity that his amanuensis, Paul Arrowsmith, has essentially switched on the tape recorder and let memories pour, failing to check or

Emotional intelligence

The difference between a poor ballet of the book (see the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein) and a good one — indeed two — was cheeringly pointed up by Northern Ballet last week, when it unveiled an intensely imagined new Jane Eyre in Doncaster and gave the London première of the efficiently menacing 1984 that I reviewed last autumn. It wasn’t really a surprise that Cathy Marston had a triumph with the Brontë —Royal Ballet-raised but Europe-bred, the choreographer has gradually developed a knack for character empathy and, crucially, a gift for externalising inner feelings in a vividly legible way. So although Jane Eyre is such a literary story, with every emotional

Sex on legs

That joke about the young bull who tells the old bull, ‘Hey, Dad, see all those cows — let’s run and get one of them,’ and the old one replies, ‘Let’s walk and we can have the lot,’ is of course far too politically incorrect to tell these days. But it did creep into my mind last week watching Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double bill of Frederick Ashton’s masterworks, The Dream and A Month in the Country. He’s the old bull, and after the Duracell rogering in Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless the other week, the serene, sly, ceaselessly sensuous way Ashton seduces you in those ballets, with choreography that never stoops to