Earlier this month we attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium at Imperial College London. Celebrating the choreographer who would have been 80 this year, this full day event was held in association with The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Institute of Psychoanalysis and drew on psychoanalysts, scholars and dancers sharing insights into MacMillan’s ballets, along with rare archival footage and live masterclasses. A full register will soon be available through the new Kenneth MacMillan official website (which goes live December 11) but here are some of our own notes and thoughts.
To backtrack a little, my first exposure to MacMillan was a televised performance of his Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie. I remember being quite taken with the lifts where Juliet expresses her delight as Romeo tries to take her to the stars. So much could be said about young love and the feeling of one’s heart brimming with happiness with such economy of movement and no mime. I didn’t know much about MacMillan then but his work struck a chord with me. Later I had the opportunity to move to London and discover, via The Royal Ballet, the extent of his choreographic vocabulary, from full-length to short works, realising that MacMillan’s ballets were all about human emotions conveyed via eloquent steps.
At the time when MacMillan quit dancing and ventured into choreography, ballet was a decorative art form which provided an escape from reality. He set out to do exactly the opposite, turning reality and human suffering into compelling dance works. Putting this into context MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry introduced the session speaking of how he eventually became the “outsider”, the most common leitmotif found in his works, first seen in female characters (Laiderette, Anastasia) but later appearing as males (Mayerling, Different Drummer). Kenneth had not been bullied or lonely as a child, but the death of his mother when he was 12 and the difficult relationship with his father and brother set him on a constant search for a surrogate family and for his own identity. Parry also remarked that these events led MacMillan to search for psychoanalysts to help him understand his fears and anxieties and to deal with depression. Whilst he was fascinated with Freud, MacMillan also worried about what would happen to his creative spirit if he dug too deep into his sources.
We saw the practical extent to which MacMillan’s work and his creative sources provide rich psychoanalytical material. A panel headed by Dr. Luis Rodriguez de la Sierra (known to us from the “Connecting Conversations” series) offered links between MacMillan’s life experiences and his creative output. This panel juxtaposed the troubled relationship between brothers with the sibling relationship in Manon, where the older brother Lescaut “corrupts” and breaks her innocence by throwing her in Monsieur G.M.’s way; the fact that MacMillan’s father had been gassed in WWI (during the Battle of Somme) with the war aftermath from Gloria and his mother’s recurrent debilitating fits with Mayerling and Empress Elizabeth’s rejection of her attention-seeking son Crown Prince Rudolf. Another interesting discussion centered around the fantasy of “dying together as an act of love”, an allegory present in Romeo and Juliet and in Mayerling and which the panel connected to Ernest Jones’s theory of a subconscious wish to return to the mother’s womb.
National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the last person to work with MacMillan (in Carousel), demonstrated via video that MacMillan could convey in 5 minutes of dance “what would take a playwright 3 hours with words”. In a short pas de deux from Carousel we saw how movement marks the evolution of the main female character, from tomboy to woman in love. Actress Nichola McAuliffe also talked about her experience with MacMillan as a stage director. She explained that British Theatre traditionally had actors “dead” from the neck below and that working with MacMillan made her think about the physicality of her characters.
To illustrate MacMillan’s creative methods Birgit Keil and Vladimir Klos, former Stuttgart Ballet dancers who created roles in MacMillan ballets, described how he nurtured his dancers and sought a collaborative process. A fragment of the documentary A Lot of Happiness showed the choreographer rehearsing both dancers for a Pas de Deux based on Orpheus and Eurydice, giving them pointers of the type of movement he wanted and encouraging them to try different things. Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Dame Monica Mason also spoke of her experience. Tracing a parallel between Ashton and MacMillan, she said that the first one always expressed a preference for beauty and the second for reality, no matter how ugly that could be.
Speaking about “MacMillan’s subject matter” the eminent Financial Times critic Clement Crisp recalled audience reactions to the choreographer’s work, their discomfort with seeing “appaling grief represented by agonizing, ugly shapes”. A keen supporter who has seen every single MacMillan work (but for two short pieces made for ABT), Mr. Crisp eloquently spoke of the choreographer as a man of the theatre who knew about human suffering and found a way to show those terrible moments of life via fascinating and true choreography “which is ultimately what ballet is all about”, as well as in characters which “kept living after the curtain fell”.
The final section focused on MacMillan’s “Creativity In Spite of Adversity”, his courage to stand firm and travel to where he could realise his vision. Mr. Crisp recalled masterpieces Song of the Earth and Requiem which were created for Stuttgart Ballet after Covent Garden’s administration worried about the use of Gustav Mahler’s music for choreography and, in Requiem’s case, that sacred music could offend religious sensibilities. These points were illustrated with excerpts from the documentary “Out of Line” where Sir Peter Wright, Clement Crisp and Deborah MacMillan shared their personal views on the challenges faced by MacMillan at home and abroad and his special link with Stuttgart Ballet.
In addition to the masterclasses featuring two Mayerling pas de deux (Rudolf/Empress Elisabeth and Rudolf/Princess Stephanie) with Edward Watson, Cindy Jourdain and Iohna Loots from The Royal Ballet, and the Manon pas de trois (Manon/Lescaut/Monsieur GM) with Begoña Cao, Fabian Reimair and Antony Dowson from English National Ballet, the audience also had the opportunity to watch a full screening of MacMillan’s last work for The Royal Ballet, The Judas Tree*, with Irek Mukhamedov, Michael Nunn and Leanne Benjamin. This gruesome ballet (featuring a gang rape) touches upon the theme of betrayal in various ways. Original cast members Michael Nunn and Viviana Durante emphasised to the audience how MacMillan would let dancers discover the character during the creative process which, as Nunn said, “kept you on your toes”.
With so much background and valuable insights into Kenneth MacMillan’s universe, this was an event that will certainly enrich our experience and understanding of his compelling works. We now look forward to what the new official website may bring.
*The Judas Tree will be revived by The Royal Ballet in a Triple bill dedicated to MacMillan’s 80th birthday, together with Concerto and Elite Syncopations. These three pieces represent milestones in the choreographer’s career and different sides to his work. Concerto was the first piece he created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet as Artistic Director. Elite Syncopations, his ragtime jazz ballet, was made during his tenure as The Royal Ballet’s Director while The Judas Tree, his last work for the Royal Ballet, remains one of his most challenging pieces.