Light & Dark Matters

Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration

2 Natasha Oughtred and Jamie Bond with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's “Concerto.” Photograph by Bill Cooper

Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration
The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Yorke Dance Project
“Concerto” / “Le Baiser de la fée” / “Elite Syncopations” (October 18, 2017)
“Sea of Troubles” and “Judas Tree” / “Song of the Earth” (November 1, 2017)
Royal Opera House, London, UK

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s death. To celebrate the life and work of the internationally renowned choreographer and former Royal Ballet director, the UK’s leading ballet companies joined together to perform a season of MacMillan’s work.

The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet, along with Yorke Dance Project, each performed one of MacMillan’s one-act ballets at London’s Royal Opera House, as well as their home venues. Highlights included “Gloria,” danced by Northern Ballet and received with great acclaim; “Concerto” by Birmingham Royal Ballet; and “Elite Syncopations” which, in true celebratory style, was performed by artists from across the five companies. The season also saw two of MacMillan’s shorter works brought to the stage; “Jeux,” danced by artists of The Royal Ballet, and the lesser known “Sea of Troubles,” performed by Yorke Dance Project.

“Concerto,” performed by BRB as part of an ROH triple bill, is quite simply an exquisite piece of choreography. A meticulous interpretation of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2, it proves just how skilled an artist MacMillan was.

Like a conductor bringing in the instruments of his orchestra, MacMillan uses a full company of dancers to highlight each detail of Shostakovich’s score. Various formulations of pas de deux, soloists and corps de ballet are masterfully layered, creating a complex and ever-moving work.

The principals, particularly Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou, are superb. In spite of Macmillan’s challenging choreography—both technically and musically—their movement remains lively and exact. Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton are also on form, and beautifully capture the delicacy and romance of the second movement.

Throughout, the company dance brilliantly. They fill the stage with a sea of sunshine-hued costumes, and the warmth of their energy made “Concerto” one of the most joyous works of the MacMillan season.

“Elite Syncopations,” set to music by Scott Joplin, is Macmillan’s frolicking ode to ragtime. Skin-tight unitards and jauntily tipped hats in bright, candy-cane colours are the perfect complement to this work filled with light-hearted quirks. Flicks, parallel knees and tilted hips are teased into the classical style. It’s a touch that evokes visions of the roaring ‘20s and the piece has a fun and frivolous air.

Featuring artists from across the five ballet companies, “Elite Syncopations” is a fittingly showy performance. Yasmine Naghdi of the Royal Ballet shone in her white pompom clad unitard, performing her central role with a flirtatious but elegant flair. However, it was English National Ballet’s Precious Adams who stole the show with a seductive and stylish solo. She embraced her part, sashaying through the steps with sass and charm. As kitsch as it is, “Elite Syncopations” is an undeniable joy to watch.

Within the same triple bill was Scottish Ballet’s interpretation of MacMillan’s “Le Baiser de la fée.” This one-act ballet is perhaps not one of Macmillan’s most enthralling works. Even Igor Stravinsky’s score, written in part as a homage to the music of Tchaikovsky, does not emit the usual energy and excitement of the composers’ music.

Choreographically, MacMillan takes a simpler approach. The plot and characters are not presented with any great detail so it’s down to the dancers to fill the space between the steps and find the interest through their artistry. Scottish Ballet do not quite manage to fill that space, although Bethany Kingsley-Garner as the bride is bright and charming, and the corps keep things lively through some long-winded scenes.

In contrast, the short but emphatic “Sea Of Troubles” condenses Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a series of vignettes. While succinct and without fuss, it still manages to present an insight into Hamlet’s psyche.

Created for Dance Advance in 1988—a touring company founded by a small group of dancers who had left the Royal Ballet—the simple devices of a crown, a wreath of flowers and a sheet for the ghost, allow just six dancers to flit between the main characters of the play. In some ways “Sea of Troubles” is a dated work but it holds an undeniable charm and, in the hands of Yorke Dance Project, it is filled with new life.

Jonathan Goddard takes the role of Hamlet. There’s a great presence and intensity to his role and, even when a bystander to the action, Goddard emits a sense of the relentless thoughts in Hamlet’s mind. The committed performances of all the dancers make “Sea of Troubles” a worthy revival, but the emotional expression from the three women is especially strong. Freya Jeffs’ portrayal of the lost and helpless Ophelia as she descends into madness is particularly heart-wrenching. It’s a gem of a work, revived and danced with great artistry.

The final two works of the season presented mixed results. Set to Gustav Mahler’s song cycle of the same name, Macmillan’s “Song of the Earth” is an elegant and fittingly poetic work, danced here by English National Ballet. Mahler’s composition was inspired by Hans Bethge’s collection of Oriental poems, Die chinesische Flöte. The words of the poems are sung with tender emotion by two opera singers (at this performance Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker) and MacMillan’s abstract choreography gently enhances the sense of the words they sing.

At the centre of the work are three figures—a maiden (Tamara Rojo), her lover (Joseph Caley) and the messenger of death (Jeffrey Cirio). To each song a new scene unfolds, echoing the cycle of life, death, and renewal. The songs shift from mournful to joyful, and in the work’s lighter, more comical moments, MacMillan deftly picks out the accents in Mahler’s music to lend humour to the movement.

Throughout it all the messenger of death is ever-present, but in MacMillan’s interpretation he is a gentle, almost guiding force. Cirio’s sensitive portrayal of the role, even through his leaps and turns, offers an apt interpretation.

English National Ballet present a clean, careful, and beautifully danced interpretation, but it doesn’t quite get beneath the surface of MacMillan’s choreography. This is music and song filled with feeling—even more so with the singers on stage—and, while the dance shouldn’t overwhelm that, it should reach beyond the steps and bring into being the profound emotions of this work. There are moments where the company find this—Rojo dances with increasing warmth and Caley is gently spirited—but their performance is almost too careful to really make an impact.

“The Judas Tree,” MacMillan’s final creation, is also one of his most controversial. Although it premiered in 1992, the contemporary set depicting a building site, with the pyramid-topped skyscraper of Canary Wharf looming in the background, still feels surprisingly modern. The work itself, performed by the Royal Ballet, does not.

The company dance well and the masculine energy of the men’s leaps, rolls and grappling action, evokes a frenzy of activity well-suited to Brian Elias’ discordant score. However, the way the work depicts scenes of gang rape, murder and suicide remains difficult to reconcile.

Among an ensemble of fourteen men there is just one woman (in this performance the role was danced by Melissa Hamilton), who is carried on stage wrapped in a sheet. Her role is little more than that of a plaything for the men. Her actions are wanton and highly sexualised, but she is no manipulative seductress. Her movements are often straight-legged and rigid and she is passed— or flung—from man to man. Hamilton’s boundless flexibility enhances the uncomfortable nature of these actions, her legs pushed to extreme angles, or wrapped around men’s shoulders. In this role, she is little more than a doll brought to life.

MacMillan’s works often broach dark subject matter. The choreography of the rape scene echoes movement seen in works like “The Invitation”—particularly the way Hamilton emerges, legs inverted and clutching her crotch. Yet while the depiction of rape in that work had a delicacy—and importantly context—that made it as harrowing as such a subject should be, here it simply feels violent. The fact that scenes of gang rape and murder occur without any real emotional connection, or an attempt to find reason for their depiction (besides a sadistic narrative that has loose connections with Judas’ betrayal), awakens a feeling little short of disgust. At a time when stories of sexual harassment, particularly towards woman, are being brought to our attention almost daily in the media, it feels even more frustrating to see such scenes presented without solid reason. “The Judas Tree,” although a dark work in any decade, has not travelled well through time.

MacMillan is known as a somewhat unpredictable choreographer and that is part of the beauty of a season that draws together a selection of his less oft performed works along with some of the gems of his repertoire, we are also given the chance to experience the breadth of his interests and choreographic vision. To see those works interpreted and performed across the country by the UK’s leading ballet companies lends them yet another perspective. A mixed selection it may have been, but it was without doubt a delight to see, and celebrate, such a diverse range of work from one of ballet’s great choreographers.

 

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