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. Passion is the pinnacle of many of MacMillan’s narrative pieces, and a passionate pas de deux was often the foundation for the rest of the work: Manon’s lover whirls her round in their bedroom pas de deux as a mark of the tumult to come, and Romeo lifts Juliet above him in the balcony pas de deux as a foretelling of the fate Juliet sees for him in the play (‘now thou art below, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb’).
As well as literary tragedies, MacMillan also tackled historical ones, including Anastasia, a rumination on the Romanov shooting, Russian Imperialism, and memory, and Mayerling, the true story of a regal murder-suicide with a male lead who’s an Angry Young Man if there ever was one. Angry young men were rampant on Britain’s theatrical stages in the 1950s and their rage and realism influenced MacMillan’s choreography that he brought to the balletic stage in the sixties and seventies, with Mayerling demanding technical accomplishment and accomplished dramatic acting from its leading man.
The raw heart of MacMillan’s historical works makes them hugely moving, and the theatrical weight of them is unmistakeable: in Gloria, a one-act elegy to lives lost at war that will be performed by Northern Ballet as part of the celebration, the moments of stillness scream as loudly as playwright Harold Pinter’s silences. MacMillan was never afraid of the visceral or the violent, and often explored provocative themes relating to real experience that were rare in classical dance, most notably his depiction of rape in The Judas Tree (performed by the Royal Ballet this season) and The Invitation in all its uninviting but vital vividness.
MacMillan was famously ‘sick to death of fairy-tales’, with ballet full to the brim of Sleeping Beauties, Cinderellas, and Swan Lakes, and focused his works on emotional resonance rather than folkloric classicism. Nonetheless, MacMillan did choreograph one, Le Baiser de la Fée, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden and performed by the Scottish Ballet in the celebration, but, characteristic of MacMillan, the fairy’s kiss became a mark of something deeper, much darker and more dangerous. Yet, he didn’t abandon the classical ballets, also choreographing a Sleeping Beauty that valued the nineteenth-century classicism of its creation while reviving it, now in the repertoire of the English National Ballet and will be staged at the Coliseum this summer.
As well as a master storyteller, MacMillan was also a master of style. In his more abstract one-act works, MacMillan celebrated the control and mastery of classical ballet in Concerto, explored expressionism and pushed the classical line in Song of the Earth, and relied on rhythm for a rambunctious romp to ragtime music in Elite Syncopations, all of which will be performed as part of the celebration by a combination of the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet.
Kenneth MacMillan was a master choreographer of works as socially, psychologically, and sexually deep as they are diverse; a visionary, revolutionary, and realist with an inimitable humanity at the heart of his creations. The National Celebration, staged from the 18th October-1st November, may be a moment of remembrance on the anniversary of his death, but, through dance, his works are a commemoration of life, love, and loss. In his works, ballet lives and breathes.