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Ballet Breathes: Kenneth MacMillan, Master Choreographer

Ballet Breathes: Kenneth MacMillan, Master Choreographer

Ballet is no Sleeping Beauty. It’s no art installation, no history in hallowed halls, no artefact kept under lock and key. Steps and concepts can be penned, but can’t be captured in a still frame like film, composed on staves like music or printed on paper like poetry. It’s ephemeral, like theatre, existing only for a moment, but, unlike theatre, that moment – or movement – exists only on the body that embodies it. Ballet lives and breathes.

No one understood this more instinctively, or intensely, than Kenneth MacMillan; a master choreographer of the Royal Ballet and beyond whose life and work is being celebrated by the best of British companies, as well as around the world, to commemorate 25 years since his death. MacMillan had a heart attack backstage at the Royal Opera House in 1992 during a revival of his emotionally arresting work Mayerling, but while the creator’s heart may have stopped, the heart of his creations go on beating and breaking on ballet stages around the world as wards of his widow, Lady MacMillan.

Most of the works in the celebration, performed by a mix of dancers from six world-class companies from around the UK, are composed of three short, one-act works to showcase the diversity and depth of his choreographic style. Yet, MacMillan is most famous for his technically and emotionally exhausting – for dancers and audiences – three-acters. Arguably, his magnum opus is Romeo and Juliet, first staged in 1965 and featuring some of the most passionate pas de deux in the repertoire. Taking his inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers and ancestral strife, MacMillan accomplishes with movement what Shakespeare did with speech and rhythms: the same passion between the lovers as the poetry of their lines in the play; the same gap between generations with the regimented ‘Dance of the Knights’ – aided by Prokofiev’s famously evocative score – of the elders and the expressive freedom of the adolescents; the same hostility between the houses solidified by visceral sword-fights and fatalities.

MacMillan, like Shakespeare, was a consummate storyteller, also reimagining his Hamlet as a harrowing realisation of loss in Sea of Troubles, performed by the small but strong Yorke Dance Project, as well as turning to other stories from the canon to retell with movement. Namely, Manon, based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost and performed in March by the Royal Ballet, the tale of an impulsive woman forced into poverty by passion. P