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MacMillan "insight" evenings


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Likely people who follow the Royal Ballet are aware of this, but in case not -- and for anyone interested in Kenneth MacMillan's choreography -- the Royal Opera House has held two "insight" evenings on MacMillan in conjunction with the upcoming multi-company celebration of MacMillan's choreography to be held there. These events were live-streamed and have now been archived on youtube. The occasion is the 25th anniversary of MacMillan's death.


I have mixed responses to MacMillan's oeuvre and nonetheless I found these quite compelling. I  especially appreciated the chance to see rehearsals of ballets I have only read about or seen in photos (if that). One of the evenings also included some film footage dating back over 50 years of early MacMillan ballets with, as I infer, their original casts -- the Burrow with Lynn Seymour and a rehearsal of House of Birds with Doreen Wells and Christopher Gable. The festival's entire focus is on one act MacMillan works--which seems to be a fantastic idea. It is also great to see dancers from a number of different British Companies. After watching the second video, though, I must just say....Melissa Hamilton!)


Here are the links:




And the second--which doesn't get underway for a couple of minutes:



Edited by Drew
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I think that one of the main problems with the MacMillan repertory is that we only ever get to see a limited range of his work. We get to see the three  full length money spinners on a triennial basis but apart from them we are more likely to see a work such as Judas Tree than we are to see much of his classical choreography.I am not sure whether this one sided approach to his choreographic output is solely attributable to Lady M's views as to where MacMillan's greatness lies.She seems to believe  that his most significant contribution to the development of ballet was his desire to achieve a sort of gritty realism in his works and to push at the boundaries of what ballet was deemed capable of doing. Cultivating his image as an iconoclast who challenged the conventions of classical ballet and overturned a repertory in which ballets about fairies played a prominent part is, of course,risible as it ignores the staple repertory of the first half of the twentieth century; the range of works created by Ashton and the works of  two of the choreographers who played a significant part in MacMillan's development namely Antony Tudor and Roland Petit. The worst thing about this carefully cultivated version of the choreographer is that it has the effect of suggesting that MacMillan's classically based works, some of which have not been seen in decades are not worth reviving and that their neglect is totally justified.

I went to two of the performances in the Clore studio as well as two Insight evenings. I saw Sea of Troubles an evocation of Hamlet which MacMillan made for a small company performing in small venues which had been formed by a couple of dancers who had previously worked for the Royal Ballet companies and " Jeux" a piece that Wayne Eagling had stitched together from some choreography MacMillan had created for a film. I think that "Sea of Troubles" suffered from being performed in an area that was probably two or three times the size of the area in which it was originally staged. This slowed the action down and generated  lengthy pauses as dancers who had left the performing area needed time to return to it.  The occasional lengthy pause between the sections made it feel more episodic than I suspect was originally intended. As for the style of dance movement employed it was expressionist and on occasion came perilously close to being characterised as little more than rolling about on the floor. I actually found myself thinking that Helpmann had made a far better job of making a dance work  based on Hamlet than MacMillan had managed. I found Jeux much more interesting. It had far greater coherence and it had a cast which included Muntagirov, Naghdi and Gasparini.

Of the two other Insight evenings I saw one showed dancers from the guest companies endeavoring to get to grips with unfamiliar choreography the other brought together current and former members of the RB to discuss dancing the roles of Romeo and Juliet.  The Insight event in which sections of "Gloria " and "Baiser de la Fee" were rehearsed demonstrated the  technical demands the choreography makes on the performer and the advantage enjoyed by dancers for whom works like "Gloria" are regular repertory pieces. The event with dancers talking about Romeo and Juliet fell a bit flat. Listening to retired dancers and current members of the RB talking about dancing a ballet like Romeo and Juliet will only take you so far. Once you have heard several dancers say that MacMillan ballets demand truthfulness rather than artifice and that you leave something of yourself on stage at the end of a performance you have essentially learned everything you need to know about dancing in one of MacMillan's major narrative works. 

The most interesting event for me was the screening of a documentary made by the former dancer  Lynne Wake who danced with SWRB/BRB before  going to work for Kevin Brownlow the film historian and expert on silent film. Her documentary had originally consisted of interviews with dancers who had worked with MacMillan during his early years as a choreographer. It has now been re-cut to include film clips of the ballets which the interviewees were talking about.The documentary covers works that I saw in my early days of ballet going and others which have only ever been titles and dancers whose work I had heard about but had never seen. The ballets documented included  Laiderette, House of Birds, Solitaire,Danses Concertantes, The Burrow, The Invitation, Baiser de la Fee and his version of Agon. 

We were told that the filmed performances which were used in the documentary were made by Esme Wood who was married to someone senior in the company's administrative team. The films had been handed over to the British Film Institute for safe keeping but by the time that Lynne Wake approached the BFI to gain access to them the BFI had come to believe that the films had been donated to it and were its property. The BFI  had demanded quite a substantial sum for access to the recorded material which would have made it impossible to include excerpts from the films in her documentary . It was only when someone found the receipts which proved that the company had paid for the film stock that the BFI backed down and Wake was given access to the material. We were told that the film of  Baiser de la Fee used in its reconstruction, was found in a biscuit tin at the Opera House. Most of the films had been transferred to DVD but the transferred images could not be  used as they were just so many white blobs on a black background. Wake almost abandoned the idea of using the film  but when she inspected  the negatives she found that they had crisp clear images. The problem was that the negatives have no sound track. However when she spoke to Antoinette Sibley and Merle Park they were both relieved that the film with soundtrack was not being used as the sound track on the film had not been properly synchronized with the movement which it was supposed to accompany.

The film of Baiser is the only record that there is of the ballet. Although both MacMillan and de Valois were enthusiastic proponents of  ballet notation in the early days it was not possible to record everything as there was only one notator available. Ballets created for the Touring Company were only notated if they were transferred to the Covent Garden stage. It was only possible to revive MacMillan's original version of Baiser because it had been filmed.

Not all of the early ballets included in the film  would work today.I strongly suspect that The Burrow was very much a ballet of its time and depended for its impact on its original cast, which included Lynn Seymour, and the cast's and the audiences's shared knowledge of  what had happened during the Nazi occupation of Europe. I certainly thought that "The Invitation" lacked real impact when it was recently revived. I can't say how much this lack of impact was attributable to the cast not including Seymour and Gable  and how much was attributable to MacMIllan's later challenging works desensitising us. As the revival was strongly cast I think I will go for the desensitising option.

There are other ballets mentioned in the film which would still work today and should be revived such as Danses Concertantes and MacMillan's Agon. I can only assume that the reason for their neglect has more to do with the fact that they are, in Lady M's eyes, the wrong sort of MacMillan ballet.  Solitaire is charming and tuneful, hangs on by a fingernail at Birmingham and is obviously not the right sort of MacMillan work as it is not "challenging". Danses Concertantes suffers the same weakness. It is a quirky enjoyable take on the vocabulary of classic dance which fits the score perfectly.

 I suppose that  Lady M may have come to feel that she has exhausted the income generating capacity of the works which she has been reviving regularly. Next April we shall have the opportunity to see excerpts from House of Birds, Danses Concertants and the full Laiderette in performances given by a group of dancers described as Viviana Durante's company who are in reality  a handful of dancers from the RB including Francesca Hayward and Ed Watson and Ballet Black. We can always hope that at least Danses Concertantes might find its way back onto the Covent Garden stage and that MacMillan's Four Seasons might not be far behind it .


Edited by Ashton Fan
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Thanks for this very informative report. The Macmillan work I would most like to see again is the Faure Requiem...which was certainly emotionally ambitious though it could not be considered ‘gritty’...Unsurprisingly perhaps, my happiest experience of Macmillan in recent years has been Song of the Earth which, at any rate, has never fallen out of the repertory and seems at no risk of doing so.  

Unfortunately, the only genuinely ‘pure dance’ Macmillan I have seen —several times when young—is Concerto. And, honestly, I remember being bored to tears by it. (Elite Syncopations also seemed very thin to me even with its original cast.) So it’s intriguing to read Ashton Fan making the case for the ‘pure dance’ part of his oeuvre. I do remember how compelling I found the (neo)classical pas de deux at the end of Prince of Pagodas, so in the unlikely event I get the opportunity, I will be very happy to find out if there are Macmillan ‘pure dance’ works that speak to me more compellingly than Concerto did. After so very many years, it is possible my reaction to Concerto itself might change...

On the realism versus artifice front: a former Sadlers Wells (or BRB) dancer in the Insight evening spoke about rehearsing the Invitation with Macmillan and how after rehearsal he came up to her NOT to see if she was emotionally okay, but to say two words, ‘it hurts’, which, as SHE explained it, was his way of conveying that she had to really feel the pain of the rape. This anecdote did not exactly make me feel better about Macmillan’s occasional taste for sexual violence and sexual coercion in his ballets. Um...sort of the contrary.

On a very different front: Rather unexpectedly I have tickets to see Macmillan’s production of Sleeping Beauty as danced by the English National Ballet this June. So, if my trip goes as planned, that will be my ‘live’ Macmillan celebration.  And I am looking forward to it.

Edited by Drew
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We don't get to see much MacMillan in North America, alas. I'm still hoping, however, that Houston Ballet brings its Mayerling to Lincoln Center next July to fill the hole left by the POB cancellation. I can dream, can't I? I think I made that point some time ago during the floods, but I'm hoping that somebody from Houston or LC reads this board!

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