Feature Review: Kenneth MacMillan – A National Celebration at the Royal Opera House

Written by: G. J. Dowler

Matthew Ball in The Judas Tree
Photograph: Bill Cooper, © ROH 2017

Company – Birmingham Royal Ballet

Dancers – Momoko Hirata, Tzu-Chao Chou, Jenna Roberts, Tyrone Singleton, Delia Mathews, Arabcha Baselga, Maureya Lebowitz, Miki Mizutani, Yasao Atsuji, Feargus Campbell, Brandon Lawrence

Jonathan Higgins (piano) & Paul Murphy (conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Dmitri Shostakovitch – Music [Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102]
Jürgen Rose – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting
Marion Tait, Denis Bonner & Michael O’Hare – Staging

Le Baiser de la fée
Company – Scottish Ballet

Fairy – Constance Devernay
Fiancée – Bethany Kingsley-Garner
Young Man – Andrew Peasegood
Mother – Sophie Martin
Gypsy – Mia Thompson
Artists of Scottish Ballet
Students of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Tom Seligman (conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Igor Stravinsky – Music
Garry Harris – Designs
Simon Bennison – Lighting
Diana Curry & Donald MacLeary – Répétiteurs

Elite Syncopations
Company – The Royal Ballet including guest companies

Sunflower Slow Drag – The Company
Elite Syncopations – The Company
The Cascades – Itziar Mendizabal, Melissa Hamilton, Yuhui Choe [The Royal Ballet]
Hot-House Rag – James Hay, Valentino Zucchetti, William Bracewell, Paul Kay [The Royal Ballet]
Calliope Rag – Precious Adams [English National Ballet]
Ragtime Nightingale – The Company
The Golden Hours – Karla Doorbar, Mathias Dingman [Birmingham Royal Ballet]
Stop Time Rag – Yasmine Naghdi [The Royal Ballet]
The Alaskan Rag – Marge Hendrick, Constant Vigier [Scottish Ballet]
Bethena (Concert Waltz) – Yasmine Naghdi, Ryoichi Hirano [The Royal Ballet]
Friday Night – Riku Ito [Northern Ballet]
Cataract Rag – The Company

Robert Clark (piano & conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Scott Joplin, Paul Pratt, James Scott, Joseph F. Lamb, Maz Morath, Donald Ashwander & Robert Hampton – Music
Ian Spurling – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting
Christopher Saunders & Gary Avis – Staging
Daniel de Andrade, Lesley Collier, Vergie Derman, Monica Mason, Michael O’Hare & Alfreda Thorogood – Principal coaching

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Judas Tree
Company – The Royal Ballet

The Foreman – Thiago Soares
Friends – Reece Clarke, Edward Watson
The Woman – Lauren Cuthbertson
Workmen – William Bracewell, Leo Dixon, Teo Dubreuil, Tristan Dyer, Nicol Edmonds, Benjamin Ella, Paul Kay, Tomas Mock, Fernando Montaño, David Yudes, Valentino Zuchetti

Koen Kessels (conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Brian Elias – Music
Jock McFadyen – Designs
Mark Henderson – Lighting
Karl Burnett – Staging
Ricardo Cervera, Viviana Durante & Irek Mukhamedov – Principal coaching

Emma Maguire, Fumi Kaneko, Leticia Stock, Melissa Hamilton, Gemma Pitchley-Gale, Claire Calvert and Yasmine Naghdi in Song of the Earth, The Royal Ballet
Photograph: © 2015 ROH / Tristram Kenton

Song of the Earth
Company – English National Ballet

The Messenger of Death – Jeffrey Cirio
First Song – Isaac Hernández, Ken Saruhashi, Aitor Arrieta, Erik Woolhouse, Francisco Bosch, Gulherme Menezes
Second Song – Erina Takahashi, Senei Kou, Tiffany Hedman, Alison McWhinney, Ken Saruhashi, Aitor Arrieta, Erik Woolhouse, Gulherme Menezes
Third Song – Senri Kou, Jung Ah Choi, Anjuli Hudson, Francesca Velicu, Connie Vowles, Daniel McCormick, Van Le Ngoc, Hoshua McSherry-Gray, Giorgio Garrett
Fourth Song – Tiffany Hedman, Ensemble
Fifth Song – Isaac Hernández, Aitor Arrieta, Francisco Bosch
Sixth Song. Erina Takahashi, Isaac Hernández, Ensemble

Rhonda Browne (mezzo-soprano) & Samuel Sakker (tenor)
Gavin Sutherland (conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Gustav Mahler – Music [Das Lied von der Erde]
Nicholas Georgiadis – Designer
John B. Read – Lighting
Grant Coyle – Staging
Edward Watson – Principal coaching

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Company – Northern Ballet

Dancers – Riku Ito, Minju Kang, Giuliano Contadini, Sarah Chun, Sean Bates, Ashley Dixon, Nicola Gervasi, Artists of Northern Ballet

Royal Opera Chorus
Sarah-Jane Lewis (soprano) & Tom Seligman (conductor)

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Francis Poulenc – Music [Gloria in G]
Andy Klunder – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting
Diana Curry & Antony Dowson

Friday, October 27, 2017

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Yuhui Choe in Concerto
Photograph: © Johan Persson/ROH 2010

That the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Kenneth MacMillan is being marked by six UK dance companies is cause enough to cheer – deceased choreographers need their champions if their works are not to be forgotten, and none would have had such a doughty promoter and defender as his widow, Lady MacMillan. She has tirelessly exercised strict control over her late husband’s ballets, but has found the promotion of his shorter, one-act works difficult – every company wants Romeo and Juliet and/or Manon, but is rather more reticent when it comes to the others.

Three mixed programmes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (with two or three performances each) are, therefore, welcome, as is the participation not only of MacMillan’s ‘home’ companies of The Royal Ballet presenting a revival of the choreographer’s last work Judas Tree and Birmingham Royal Ballet, who offered Concerto, but also English National Ballet, bringing the mighty Song of the Earth, Northern Ballet, who offered the First World War-inspired Gloria and Scottish Ballet with the exciting revival of the 1960 Le Baiser de la fée, not seen since 1986. Dancers from all five companies came together in a collective letting-down of hair in Elite Syncopations. One should not forget he tiny Yorke Dance Project which presented the fascinating Sea of Troubles, a masterly distillation of Hamlet or the revival of Wayne Eagling’s Jeux which includes MacMillan’s snippets of choreography for the film Nijinsky, both of which were given in Covent Garden’s Clore Studio.

For those who love MacMillan’s artistry, it was a real treat, but, at the risk of sounding churlish, it was also something of a missed opportunity: with the exception of Le Baiser de la fée, these were all ballets which are revived with some degree of regularity. A wish-list of works which might have been revived would change with the individual, but it seems a pity not to have seen Danses Concertantes, for which The Royal Ballet holds a production in the original designs, or Solitaire from Birmingham, which they have toured around the country, again in restored original designs, but not seen in London, the same company’s The Burrow, or indeed Las Hermanas, based on the House of Bernard Alba, and recently revived by Northern Ballet. MacMillan’s ‘difficult’ works should not have been ignored – Valley of Shadows, which includes wartime deportation and concentration camp, Different Drummer, based on Woyzeck and My Brother, My Sisters, while there are many who would love to see again his Four Seasons The three programmes on offer on Covent Garden’s main stage included some doubling-up, which means space could have been found for at least one further work, or, indeed, a central ‘diverts’ section which could have included some of MacMillan’s pièces d’occasion, duets and the like. Finally, despite this being a ‘national’ celebration, it would have been good to see at least some dancers from American Ballet Theatre, where MacMillan was Artistic Associate from 1984-89, and, indeed, Stuttgart where he made some of his greatest works and even Berlin, where he was director from 1966-69.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Concerto
Photograph: © Johan Persson/ROH 2010

Birmingham opened with a somewhat lumpy performance of Concerto, a deceptive work which looks simple, but is, in fact, extremely challenging. Created in Berlin and designed to impose some classical rigour on the ensemble, it is a jaunty ballet, with bright, simple costumes and quirky, open movements for the dancers. However, the soloists in each of the three movements are given taxing choreography, which must be delivered with brio. Overall, this was a dutiful revival, with MacMillan’s patterning carefully delineated but a nagging absence of homogenous style. Most successful, the jewel at this work’s centre, the slow movement which is essentially an extended adagio pas de deux set to Shostakovich’s blissful composition. Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton suspended time with their focussed lyricism in a particularly pleasing pairing, she cooly elegant, he strong and steady.

The big news of this programme, and the celebration as a whole, was Scottish Ballet’s revival of Le Baiser de la fée, Macmillan’s 1960 version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale ‘The Fairy’s Kiss’. Handsomely set in Garry Harris’s new designs, this revival has been supervised by one of the original cast, Donald MacLeary, one of the finest ever British male dancers and something of an unsung muse for MacMillan. He created The Young Man, alongside Svetlana Beriosova as the Fairy (theirs was one of the most celebrated dance partnerships) and Lynn Seymour as his Fiancée. MacLeary’s hand is to be seen clearly – in an insistence on clarity of every movement and gesture, a ‘period’ insistence on banning over-extension of legs and arms, and a true sense of proportion. And Scottish Ballet rises magnificently to the challenge, dancing with attack and style. Andrew Peasegood impressed as the Young Man, the object of the Fairy’s desires, ebullient in the village festivities and partnering with aplomb (MacLeary was always the most consummate of partners). His Fiancée was Bethany Kingsley-Garner, who brought a joyous lyricism to her dancing and a relish for the complications of choreography made for the young Seymour. Her character shone out and she communicated a growing feminine sensuousness in her duets with Peasegood. If Constance Devernay could not quite deliver the icy imperiousness of Beriosova, she performed her choreography with skill, weaving her fairy spell until she got the prize she wanted – the Young Man, with whom she would then spend all eternity. Thus is a major revival of an important work and one hopes Scottish Ballet will continue to cherish it through continued performance.

Valeri Hristov and Sarah Lamb in Elite Syncopations, The Royal Ballet
Photograph: © Johan Persson/ROH 2010

Elite Syncopations was something of a snook-cocking at the Covent Garden establishment back in 1974. With lurid, suggestive and revealing costumes from Ian Spurling, it is a joyous piece of fun, all the more so way back then when audiences were not used to seeing their Swan Queens, Auroras and Princes in such light fare. The Royal Ballet provided the ensemble but shared out solos and duets among dancers from other companies. The on-stage band played Joplin and other rag-timers for all their worth, and the dancers gave it a good shot, even if the overall impression was that of politeness and even blandness. MacMillan was a ‘dangerous’ choreographer, who favoured an off-centre approach, an element of risk and wanted bags if character from his dancers – in Elite, the men need to be roguish, the sort your mother would warn you about, the women coquettish and perhaps more. However, The Royal Ballet’s Principal Yasmine Naghdi brought a definite provocative slinkiness to her movements, totally assured as queen of the dance floor, and English National Ballet’s Precious Adams was anything but innocent in her gyrations in the Calliope Rag; the was an hilarious tall-short duet too from Scottish Ballet’s Marge Hendrick and Constant Vigier in The Alaskan Rag, and a pair of lurking lotharios in the persons of James Hay and Valentino Zucchetti.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Judas Tree
Photograph: © ROH 2017 / Bill Cooper

The second main-house programme was the dark pairing of the disturbing The Judas Tree and the monumental Song of the Earth – hardly cheery fare for school half-term holidays, but an evening of serious dance and ample evidence of how far MacMillan took neo-classical dance away from the world of clichéd fairies, magic and happy endings. Indeed, The Judas Tree has a far-from-happy end, with the Foreman figure swinging by his neck from scaffolding, his self-destruction resulting in his betrayal of an innocent. It is not for the faint-hearted as it includes gang violence, cheap sexuality and a gang rape; it shocked many at its première in 1992 – the choreographer had lost none of his ability to shake his audience out of its complacency. Too complicated to disentangle in terms of specific meaning, the ballet nonetheless focusses on the themes of the outsider, the destruction of an innocent, the woman as saint and whore, all identifiable MacMillan tropes from his previous works. With the newly-built Canary Wharf main tower blinking in the background, he set the work on a contemporary building site where a broken, dystopian near-narrative plays itself out – feral workers, a complicated Foreman figure, part-bully, part-coward amongst whom a lone woman is introduced; her intimacy with a ‘good’ worker leads to her and his destruction.

In this ballet, there is clearly the biblical story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus, of Peter’s silence before the cock crows, into which is melded the figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, incarnated by the one dancer. Brian Elias’s jagged, unforgiving score parallels the controlled chaos and The Royal Ballet’s dancers rose to the challenge of a distinctly challenging work: Lauren Cuthbertson impressed as the Woman, aggressively, provocatively vulnerable, doomed to die but, as the Foreman swings, resurrected to mourn, head covered, below. Edward Watson may be in the twilight of his company career, but gave no indication of failing powers with a subtly-drawn, agonised Jesus figure – he continues to give masterclasses in the MacMillan combination of psychological depth portrayed through extended, extreme movement – no playing safe for him. Reece Clarke, rapidly rising company star, confirmed his talent with a finely danced Peter-like figure, his tall frame and long limbs carving out great arcs of movement, while the corps of eleven men were uniformly strong, none more so than William Bracewell, a recent transfer from Birmingham, Valentino Zuchetti and Paul Kay.

Dancing the central role of the Foreman was Thiago Soares who had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the role’s creator, the great Irek Mukhamedov. Certainly he danced well, but both his dancing and characterisation are too lightweight to make the required impression; the older dancer brought an ‘otherness’ to his interpretation as well as Bolshoi heft to his movement. Soares makes less of a mark, often not quite shaking off the impression that he is ‘dancing’ rather than ‘living’ the role.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Song of the Earth, The Royal Ballet
Photograph: © ROH/Johan Persson, 2012

After a well-deserved interval for the audience, English National Ballet presented one of the jewels of the home company’s repertoire, Song of the Earth. The good news is that they danced with both confidence and style in a clearly meticulous revival. MacMillan’s reaction to Mahler’s monumental work has long since passed into the pantheon of ‘great’ twentieth century ballets, so the challenge is to be true to the inherent quality and to establish a mounting intensity as it draws to its ending of death and eternity. Certainly, ENB did not seem overawed by the choreography, the location or the event, and brought clear honesty to their dancing. At its heart the Everyman and Everywoman of Isaac Hernández and Erina Takahashi; he bringing genuine sensitivity and pathos while dancing with admirable clarity, she moving in her vulnerability – the feeling of desolation as he is removed from her by Jeffrey Cirio’s sinister Messenger of Death was palpable, her desperation deeply moving.

Cirio was a disturbing presence, and it is worth noting that the interpretation of the Messenger has darkened over the decades; in the UK at least he is a far more frightening figure than in Stuttgart where they preserve the original designs (lighter and more colourful) and a more hopeful, affirming atmosphere overall – there he is Der Ewige, the Eternal One, more a source of comfort than existential terror. Cirio, however, was true to the way he was rehearsed, and provided the requisite thread of continuity through the different episodes with a strong presence and equally strong dancing. Excellent support from the whole company, who clearly relish the opportunity to dance in such a work and also the house orchestra under ENB music director Gavin Sutherland.

Carlos Acosta in Gloria
Photograph: © ROH / Bill Cooper 2011

Finishing off the list of main-house productions, Northern Ballet in Gloria, MacMillan’s moving First World War work, inspired by Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’. Despite being outside this company’s fach, the dancers performed with admirable commitment and precision, the corps tracing the complicated floor patterns with care, and the principals bringing considerable aplomb to the physical and stylistic demands placed upon them. It is a remarkably varied work, mirroring the shifting moods of ebullience to introspection in Poulenc’s score. Most impressive was the fast-moving quartet which sees the female soloist, here a fleet-footed Sarah Chun, being literally thrown off the stage to be caught by invisible hands in the wings. This fourth section, ‘Domine Fili unigenite’, saw welcome speed from Chun and her three male partners. Underpinning the whole danced performance was a muscular account of the score by conductor Tom Seligman, the Royal Opera Chorus in emphatic form and a delightful soprano soloist, Sarah-Jane Lewis, whose rich, full vocal tone was reminiscent in some ways of a young Jessye Norman.

The central trio of lead dancers gave a strong rendition of their roles, but it was here that their lack of experience of MacMillan’s style, and of this work in particular, meant that the underlying melancholy and pain was not fully conveyed. The choreographer injected great pathos into these parts, not least in the later sections of the work where Poulenc brought a sense of growing dark mystery to his music. Minju Kang, Giuliano Contadini and Riku Ito made much of the physicality of these roles, however, and provided a strong centre to this non-narrative.

And thus was Kenneth MacMillan celebrated. It was a daunting logistical undertaking and one which required extensive goodwill on the part of all, but it can be counted as a success in its mission to mark twenty-five years since the passing of one of this country’s most important and influential makers of dance.

  • www.roh.org.uk
  • Ratings:
      Concerto ***
      Le Baiser de la fée ****
      Elite Syncopations ***
      The Judas Tree ****
      Song of the Earth *****
      Gloria ****

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