In step with the master

Despite the many attempts to denigrate the work of Kenneth MacMillan, the controversial choreographer is moving centre stage again, writes Zoe Anderson
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The Independent Culture

This spring, the Royal Ballet is reviving Mayerling and Anastasia, Kenneth MacMillan's three-act ballets based on historical events. "So many dancers long to dance the big MacMillan ballets," explains Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet's director, "for the dramatic opportunities that they offer." These two ballets in particular cover violent historical events, and feature obsession, suicide and loss of identity.

This spring, the Royal Ballet is reviving Mayerling and Anastasia, Kenneth MacMillan's three-act ballets based on historical events. "So many dancers long to dance the big MacMillan ballets," explains Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet's director, "for the dramatic opportunities that they offer." These two ballets in particular cover violent historical events, and feature obsession, suicide and loss of identity.

MacMillan was the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer from 1977 until his death in 1992. With Frederick Ashton, he is one of the company's two great defining choreographers, and he remains central to the repertoire. Two years ago, there was a drastic blip in that relationship during Ross Stretton's short tenure as the company's director. On the 10th anniversary of MacMillan's death, Stretton scheduled only three-act ballets, dismissing his shorter works as chamber pieces in a press conference and in a letter to the choreographer's widow, Deborah. This was a serious mistake: Lady MacMillan controls the choreographer's estate.

Stretton's departure was hastened by complaints from almost all quarters, but his neglect of MacMillan may have been decisive. MacMillan ballets such as Manon or Romeo and Juliet are the Royal Ballet's box-office hits; the company needs a good relationship with the MacMillan estate.

The crisis was quickly resolved. Stretton was replaced by Monica Mason, who promptly scheduled a triple bill of short MacMillan works. But it does underline a contradiction in the MacMillan inheritance. He was a controversial choreographer who made some of the 20th century's most popular ballets. His repertoire is the Royal Ballet's bread and butter, but Stretton (admittedly unadventurous) wouldn't take the financial risk of a MacMillan triple bill.

The paradox was there in MacMillan's lifetime, too. He was, self-consciously, an outsider. He felt criticism keenly, and in one late interview, he referred to Britain's old- boy network. At the same time, he was the principal choreographer of the national ballet company, feted and knighted.

His own term as director of the Royal Ballet, from 1970-77, had its share of scandals. He had replaced Ashton at the head of the company; many of Ashton's admirers were wary and resentful. Feelings ran especially high in America, where the Royal Ballet performed regularly in the 1970s. During one trip, New York audiences cheered the company but booed MacMillan, who was even advised to leave the theatre quietly, under the protection of an armed security guard.

MacMillan was a controversial choreographer from early on. He emerged in the late 1950s, as British theatre was being shaken by Angry Young Men. Lynn Seymour, the ballerina for whom he made many of his greatest works, recalls: "The theatre at that time was bursting out. John Osborne was there, the nouvelle vague was there, Joan Littlewood was there. And Kenneth wanted the ballet to be as frank."

In 1960, The Invitation showed Seymour in an onstage rape scene. It was a celebrated, devastating performance that confirmed her as MacMillan's muse. In Romeo and Juliet, made five years later, the tomb scene showed the dead Juliet dragged through a dance by Romeo. Seymour was heavily, weightily dead, an unromantic body. "That's what Kenneth expected," she explains. "And that was the sort of ballet I wanted to do. He saw no romance in pain. I didn't either. It's not a beautiful thing, suffering. It's deeply disturbing, and there's no point painting it in pink. He wanted that message to come across."

MacMillan's subject matter was one source of debate. His naturalistic handling of it was another. Romeo and Juliet and Manon are popular for their pas de deux, duets in which the dancers wind around each other, fall and rise in each other's arms. At his best, MacMillan could, as Mason puts it, "get inside people's heads"; he could be explicit and psychologically acute, full of insight into relationships and societies. At other times, he was caught by his interest in disturbing subjects for their own sake. He returned again and again to rapes, to brothel scenes, to sex and violence, sometimes without the perception that can make his greatest ballets compelling. The rape scene in Manon is strangely blank; it victimises the heroine without telling us anything more about her.

The dance language that he developed was increasingly expressionistic. Some observers worried that it would compromise the Royal Ballet's classical style, its lyrical authority. But there is no doubt that he responded to dancers, or that he inspired them. When the Bolshoi star Irek Mukhamedov joined the Royal Ballet, he was bowled over by the MacMillan repertoire, exclaiming: "Kenneth has liberated me!" (Seymour was touched when I repeated this story, but didn't quite feel that it met her own case. "I was already pretty liberal," she said.)

MacMillan also had a gift for discovering dancers. Monica Mason was still in the corps de ballet when he cast her as the Chosen Maiden in his The Rite of Spring; it was a career-making performance. For The Prince of the Pagodas, his last three-act ballet, he chose the 19-year-old Darcey Bussell to dance the heroine.

Mayerling and Anastasia are both big dramatic ballets, opera-house works on a grand scale. Anastasia is about Anna Andersen, the woman who claimed to be the last tsar's youngest daughter. Mayerling, made in 1978, tells the story of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire, who committed suicide with his young mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Seymour: "He was fascinated by social and sexual hypocrisy, and by loneliness, by what society does to people."

Both stories were already well-known. Mayerling had been filmed twice; the glossy 1968 version, starring Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif, tells a tale of doomed love. MacMillan's ballet shows an obsessive relationship between Rudolf and Mary, but it also shows his earlier affairs, his instability and drug addiction, the social and political pressures of his position. It is not a romantic ballet.

Mention love to Lynn Seymour, the first Mary Vetsera, and she denies it at once. "It wasn't a love story. She was this obsessive groupie, who didn't love him, she just loved the idea of him. She was brought up in a very rigid, hypocritical society where status was everything, and your surface behaviour was everything, and what was underneath was up for grabs."

This is the world that MacMillan puts on to the stage. Mayerling opens at court, with the ball celebrating Rudolf's marriage to Princess Stephanie. The stage is filled with waltzing courtiers, with imperial grandeur and, it quickly becomes clear, with intrigue. Everybody is watchful, ready to make the most of any opportunity with Rudolf. The prince himself causes a scandal by dancing, and flirting, with his bride's sister.

At once, the audience is drawn into that rigid society, shown its formal manners and its dangerous emotions. As Monica Mason puts it: "There's hardly a nice person on that stage. I think actors, and dancers, love the idea of portraying something that's a little under." (Seymour cheerfully dismisses her own character, Mary, as "a stupid girl, really - if she had grown up, she would have needed a shrink before very long".) The court is exploitative and selfish; Rudolf is often cruel, brutal and violent. Yet MacMillan's depiction of this is so precise that it becomes tragic: you understand these people, their needs and their desires.

Some of Mayerling's greatest moments are in stillness, in quiet gestures, in body language. Mason remembers MacMillan sitting in the company canteen, watching: "He was a great observer of people." We see Princess Stephanie, the new bride, sitting and waiting for her wedding night; she's vividly still, a picture of resignation and disquiet, as her ladies dance and bustle around her. Mary Vetsera meets Rudolf through the influence of his ex-mistress, the Countess Larisch. In one tiny, brilliant scene, MacMillan shows Mary and her mother playing cards with Larisch: all three women scheming, characters vividly realised with hardly a danced step.

That naturalism was important to MacMillan. Mason remembers how hard he worked at expressing "a huge amount without any gestures", without the formal mime of 19th-century ballet. "He so revered The Sleeping Beauty and all that beautiful mime, but when it came to his own works, he couldn't bear it if somebody put a gesture in. Even Romeo wanting Juliet to come down from the balcony - he didn't want them to mime 'You, come down here', he hated that."

The body language is almost everyday, and it's vividly communicative. How is it done, and how is it taught to new casts? Seymour is matter-of-fact. "I suppose we were working with a lot of subtext. If you have the intent to express something, and you know what it is, then it's probably 99.9 per cent that you'll get it across. It's being fully informed." Mason agrees. "How a tiny thought can convey itself to the audience - it's endlessly intriguing, and Kenneth was fascinated by it."

In Mayerling, which puts a whole society on stage, the whole company has to act. Mason remembers MacMillan's own coaching: he liked dancers to think about motive and emotion. "He would emphasise * * that any move that had no reason behind it, came out and hit you in the face in the audience." Even for the corps de ballet, "every move, every part of your being on that stage was a part of the scene that was being played. He used to get very angry if dancers brought their bodies in but not their heads, he wanted them to be mentally engaged all the time with their performances."

Coaching the ballets now, Seymour is equally keen on mental alertness. Asked about freedom of interpretation, she says firmly: "I think it should be vast." How does she balance accuracy, faithfulness to the text, with freedom? "You have to pay attention to the structure," she explains. "In dance, that structure is floor patterns and musicality - those are the things that really nail the thing down, so you have to adhere to those. And they inform dynamic: if something's from here to there, in such a length of music, it tells you how you have to move. After that, you mustn't do anything by rote, must prevent anything that's trite or banal or too often used. Terribly dreary, if you just see what you expect to see."

MacMillan died of a heart attack in 1992, during the first night of a revival of Mayerling. He left his ballets to his widow, Deborah. She has been an active curator, and in the past 12 years, MacMillan stagings have multiplied. Monica Parker, who was MacMillan's notator for almost three decades, teaches the ballets worldwide. Extra coaching comes from MacMillan dancers. Lady MacMillan oversees productions, choosing which company can dance which ballet, and paying particular attention to design.

The most striking thing about Lady MacMillan's curatorship is her open attitude to the ballets. Monica Mason says: "She and Kenneth were similar in that they liked today. They weren't living in the past. So she doesn't want his pieces to be treated as museum pieces, but she wants them to be treated with respect."

Lady MacMillan says simply: "These are texts, to be interpreted differently by new casts. They're living, breathing things, these ballets." She's particularly ready to commission redesigns. "I firmly believe, because Kenneth was very secure and strong about this, that the ballets can take another look design-wise. Designs do date, even when they're set strictly in period - they reflect the fashions of their times."

More than that, Lady MacMillan has agreed to make changes to the texts of the ballets. The first act of Anastasia was set to Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. MacMillan was keen to shorten the act by cutting the music, but in 1974, the Royal Opera House refused to touch Tchaikovsky's score. After MacMillan's death, with his widow's approval, the cuts were made.

She has made other cuts to MacMillan ballets. Her husband often revised his works, making cuts or changes of emphasis. Lady MacMillan, an artist, had no dance training, but often discussed his work with him. She remembers his ideas for future revivals, and is often ready to put them into effect. She has suggested reviving Isadora, perhaps her husband's strangest ballet, made with spoken text as well as dance scenes. Had the revival gone ahead, the spoken drama was to have been reworked completely. Instead, the Royal Ballet is reviving Anastasia, but this, too, will be altered.

Anastasia has already been radically changed. MacMillan made it first in Berlin in 1967. It was a one-act ballet, set to Martinu, with Lynn Seymour as Anna Andersen. Confined to a mental institution, Seymour's Anna proclaimed her belief that she was the tsar's youngest daughter, the only member of the Russian royal family to survive execution.

DNA testing has since proved that Anna Andersen was not Anastasia; the ballet takes her claim seriously. Seymour: "We believed her dilemma because she believed it so much. Even if it weren't true, it was a fantastic story, and her pain must have been great. It's an enormously horrible thing, to be denied who you are."

In 1971, MacMillan decided to revive the piece for the Royal Ballet. At the same time, he expanded it, adding two acts showing Anastasia's youth, the outbreak of war and revolution. Mason speaks vividly about the contrast between the Martinu ballet and the two new acts, set to Tchaikovsky symphonies: "I think that's what the revolution did. Everything was broken. Everything lost. The change was violent."

The ballet became a company work; as with the later Mayerling, MacMillan showed a society breaking down. Even so, Anastasia is still the heroine's ballet. It was a stupendous role for Seymour, an arc from privileged girl to fragile survivor.

Just before his death, MacMillan considered reviving Anastasia again. He was greatly impressed with Mukhamedov - who danced his first Mayerling on the night of MacMillan's death - and considered giving him more space in the ballet by expanding the role of Rasputin. For this revival, Lady MacMillan has decided to put those changes in place.

When I asked her about it, they hadn't yet been made. "Kenneth was going to make Rasputin stronger. There's no more music there - it's three symphonies, you can't add anything - so I assume that he meant to build up Rasputin in the last act, to bring him forward in Anastasia's memories." The plan is to use existing steps, but to change the focus onstage.

Any alterations will be made by Monica Parker, MacMillan's notator. Monica Mason points out that MacMillan often adjusted steps for dancers. "If you asked him, provided you handled it well, he would fix little things. Irek turns to the left, and suddenly variations found themselves on the other side of the stage, because Kenneth wanted to accommodate that." In current revivals, Parker has made similar alterations. The proposed change is more substantial.

This could be a controversial move. Nobody is yet sure what the changes will be. Anastasia has always been very much the woman's ballet; how will this affect it? "I'm sure I'll have a lot of ordure thrown at me," says Lady MacMillan, cheerfully, "but that's all right. Without being grandiose about it, it's like the text of a play. It can be reinterpreted by new directors, new performers. That's how it should be."

In repertory: 'Mayerling' to 16 June; 'Anastasia' 21 April to 12 May; Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000;