Obituary: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Saturday 31 October 1992
KENNETH MacMILLAN was a rebel. A product of the Royal Ballet organisation, schooled in what is regarded always as an establishment art, he used his choreographic genius to illuminate in dance themes of great contemporary significance - fear and oppression in The Burrow (1958), sexual abuse in The Invitation (1960), the waste of war in Gloria (1980), the tragedies of Romeo and Juliet (1965), Isadora (1981) and Mayerling (1978), which I consider his greatest work. In this way he extended enormous influence upon younger choreographers who followed him, upon audiences and upon the German Opera Berlin and American Ballet Theatre, where he worked as well as in Britain. He was the greatest choreographic communicator of his time in classical ballet.
This position developed out of a personal struggle of many kinds. Growing up in poor circumstances in Scotland, he escaped from a background he hated by guile and by a letter to Ninette de Valois, seeking an audition at Sadler's Wells School. He became one of the original members of Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet when it was created in 1946, moved two years later to Sadler's Wells Ballet at Covent Garden, then returned to the Theatre Ballet in 1952. I met him there through the company's director, Peggy van Praagh, who was the first to encourage his choreographic talents. My own first MacMillan memory is of a tall, obviously talented dancer with a terrific jump who was notable also as a convincing Sherlock Holmes in Margaret Dale's The Great Detective, a moving actor-dancer in John Cranko's The Lady and the Fool and other ballets in the early- 1950s. I remember, too, a set design he created for a ballet, I think by Peter Darrell, at Ballet Workshop, the first and fruitful attempt by the Rambert family to create a platform for new choreography at the Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate, west London. MacMillan had the talent of a visual artist as well as a choreographer.
The first proof of choreographic talent, Somnambulism, was presented at a dancers' choreographic group at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1953. It introduced to us a new choreographer, seemingly ready-formed, without any long induction of trial and error. The choreography was clear-cut, precise, highly original in construction and very demanding on the dancers. Straightaway, he joined his friend John Cranko as a maker of ballets for Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet and for Covent Garden. It was an extraordinary event that the comparatively young British ballet should produce within a short time two choreographers who would achieve international stature as major artists.
MacMillan's early work showed the theme he would pursue most often: the outsider, the rebel, the downtrodden and the unhappy. His choice of jazz music by Stan Kenton for Somnambulism, unique at the time as ballet music, indicated also that his creative practice would depart from accepted norms. So it turned out. The Invitation (1960) was the first time sex and sexuality were treated so openly in classical ballet. He collaborated with Gillian Freeman as librettist for Mayerling and Isadora, where most choreographers nowadays insist on devising the plot as well as the choreography. He translated his inheritance of Petipa's three- and four-act ballets of princes and princesses into evening-long dramas of human characters appropriate to today's world.
This went down well in Europe, less well in the United States; and was a source of argument and friction at Covent Garden. Everybody, I am sure, will point out the coincidence that MacMillan died on a night when Birmingham Royal Ballet was presenting his Romeo and Juliet in Birmingham, and when Mayerling, the finest example of achievement in his three- act genre, was revived at Covent Garden after a long break.
MacMillan's emphasis on the human state, though, goes back to the beginning, often mixing the zany, eccentric or fantastic. Somnambulism's three characters apparently suffer from anxiety, monotony and premonition, but wake up to find they have been dreaming. Five years later, The Burrow, recently revived by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explored the tensions of persecuted people in a situation resembling the story of Anne Frank. Its many characters imprisoned in one room are defined precisely in the choreography although the effect is of improvisation. Their sudden outbursts of fear, temper, arise from the tension of their situation.
MacMillan is, therefore, a poet of the oppressed whose expose of polite society, or establishment morals, is presented not in words but in movement drawn from his classical training. The academic dance is his resource and inspiration so that, parallel with his social concern, runs also a concern for movement, exploring the possibilities of the human body. Early on in his career, in Agon (1958) and Le baiser de la fee (1960, to Stravinsky's music) the movements were angular, astringent and abstract. Gradually, as his own attitudes matured, they acquired a more plastic quality. 'In The Invitation,' he said to me in 1960, 'the movement is not nearly so broken, angular or sharp as it used to be, not sharp at all for the principals.'
In Romeo and Juliet, in Manon (1974), his great Gloria about the stupidity of war, in Song of the Earth (1965), Mayerling and other later works, the line of the body became more used, running unbroken time and again through the whole length of stretched arms, legs and feet. The images flowed unhurriedly one from another. The vocabulary became economical and self-assured.
For me, this became apparent first in MacMillan's The Rite of Spring in 1962. The ballet had none of the sharpness and spikiness of his earlier movements, however angular its sculptural effects. The assault was on the mind rather than the heart, indicating an intellectual quality underpinning the emotion in his work. Intellect and emotion seemed to run side by side in his creative process and his assessment of the outside world. 'There is a class system,' he said in an interview on BBC 2 in April 1990, 'an old-boy network to which I've never belonged and I never will . . . I'm very interested in people . . . in portraying the dilemma of people living and working with each other. That was not a very popular approach to ballet in the 1950s.'
Consequently, when MacMillan succeeded Ashton as Director of the Royal Ballet in 1970 he found his ideas resisted not only within the Royal Ballet and some British audiences, but by American audiences in the United States. Perhaps he recalled then the reception the board of Covent Garden gave in 1964 to his idea for a ballet to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. It was rejected. He took it to John Cranko in Stuttgart, where there emerged in November 1965 Song of the Earth, among MacMillan's finest works and one of the ballets which caught best the changing mood of post-war Europe.
'I prefer to explore the human psyche', he continued to the BBC, 'I try to make people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the theatre. . . I have always been drawn to the narrative, to real people and what they feel.' This means addressing reality head-on, a collision course particularly with the Thatcher philosophy of the 1980s and its lack of concern for those who lose out, the underdogs and, as MacMillan said, 'people at odds with the world'.
Such attitudes were not immediately apparent when you met him. The tall, shy figure with hair prematurely grey and a fey voice did not suggest the artist who could be brutal when necessary with dancers who did not measure up to professional standards. As director of the Royal Ballet from 1970 to 1976 he was my boss at the beginning of this time when I was running the Royal Ballet's Ballet for All group. I saw and learned from the way he handled dancers and noted also, incidentally, the effect on his creative work of having to direct a large company as well as be its principal choreographer. He made the right decision to return to full-time choreography in 1977.
At work, almost with whatever ballet, he started with the principal pas de deux. This would set the tone of what he planned and be the emotional climax, influencing what came before and what would come after. Always he was inspired by dancers' bodies as well as by the music, by what dancers themselves could contribute. 'I like my artists to find themselves in their roles.' Consequently, early on he did not dictate to the dancers. Lynn Seymour, for example, his muse and the dancer he worked with most closely, contributed greatly in the creation of her roles. So, too, did Christopher Gable with Seymour in Romeo and Juliet and David Wall in Mayerling. It was the same with his other collaborators, Nicholas Georgiadis especially for design and Richard Rodney Bennett for the music of Isadora. He drew on their ideas and shared ideas. Ideas came from many other sources too, not only music but reading and films and just talking with friends. Yet fundamentally it was the dancers and their bodies which counted. 'As a choreographer,' he said once to Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke, 'I look in the main for musicality and expressiveness of the body rather than a great technique, though I am grateful if it is there of course.'
Attitudes manifest in the rehearsal studio were replicated outside in his concern for dancers and their work. 'He used to come out to see us on tour,' said Werdon Anglin, general manager of Ballet for All. 'He would ask me always how things were with our dancers. And he was generous in letting us use his work 'if the dancers can use it'.' As always, standards came first.
People say he was a master of pas de deux and of dances for small numbers, less good in orchestrating large numbers of corps de ballet. To a point this is true. I was never impressed by the crowd scenes of his Romeo and Juliet. Then I think of the crowd scenes, the corps, in Mayerling, his extraordinary portrait of the corrupt Austrian court around the Emperor Franz Josef and Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. On a smaller scale I think of The Burrow, also a remarkable orchestration of group movement. It was not true he could not orchestrate a corps. What moved him was the idea.
The idea, the importance of content and communication, dominated his creative process. Either he started with the music which suggested an idea or, as in The Invitation, Solitaire (1956) and Anastasia (1966) he found the music to fit and realise the idea. He might draw from any source, including popular culture, as he did in Elite Syncopations (1974) to Scott Joplin music. Thus he was classical ballet's effective answer to those trends in post-modern dance which emphasised movement over content.
One can be moved greatly by an evening of works by Merce Cunningham, the leading exponent of these trends, and by Cunningham's mastery of human movement shown recently in the present Dance Umbrella festival. Such works, though, seem unlikely to remain long after their creator, however profound his influence on other choreographers. More to the point, they rarely illuminate the human condition, move the soul or inflame the mind, not to my mind anyway. MacMillan's mastery of movement and penetration of human emotion does just that. I feel often that he pours the emotions of humanity into his pas de deux, strengthened by the experience and success of his marriage. Certainly they will live after him, and as long as classical ballet.
His exploration of emotions and human relationships, those areas of communication which cannot be expressed in words, pushed back the boundaries of dance art and strengthened its place in contemporary society. He was not alone in doing this. Others like Martha Graham and Cunningham, or dancers from other cultures like Shobana Jeyasingh, have done so in other ways. MacMillan did so for classical ballet. In doing so he challenged the established forms and ideology of classicism.
Kenneth MacMillan's legacy of a deep humanity expressed through the beauty of human movement changed the nature of classical ballet and is his lasting memorial.
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