Is this ballet for you?
Go If: Sweeping & romantic Pas de Deux and the Swiss precision of a great corps de ballet are your bread & butter, especially when there are no tutus in sight.
Skip If: You are more at ease with narrative MacMillan. Concerto is MacMillan threading Balanchine territory.
Kenneth MacMillan went to Berlin in 1966 to become Ballet Director at the Städtische Opernhaus (the Municipal Opera House) known as the Deutsche Oper. When Germany was divided after World War II, Berlin’s two opera houses were situated on the East side (the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper). The government of West Berlin financed a new theatre to house its opera and ballet companies which were placed under direct management of a government’s intendent who accumulated the functions of General Manager and Artistic Director.
Gustav Rudolf Sellner had been intendent since 1963. Ballet Director Tatjana Gsovsky had resigned during 1965 and Sellner was looking for a big name to replace her. The job was initially offered to John Cranko but he didn’t want to leave his Stuttgart company. The offer was extended to MacMillan, who had impressed Sellner with his Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth).
The ballet season started in September and, having just joined the company, MacMillan prepared an opening triple bill featuring his works and including brand new Concerto as the closer.
Concerto was planned as a piece to develop the German company’s technical skills, so MacMillan conceived it as a big ensemble plotless ballet. He selected Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a work he was familiar with, for the score. His idea was to have as many dancers as possible moving swiftly through the stage, constantly changing directions and following the type of dancing patterns usually displayed by a well-trained, very disciplined corps de ballet.
There are three movements. The first and the last feature ample sections for the corps de ballet (originally 16 women and 8 men): they march en bloc following the music, perform swift manèges, spin and alternate places. The central couple in the first allegro movement perform dazzling steps in perfect sync, full of energetic turns. At the premiere, German critic Horst Koegler enthused about dancer Falco Kapuste. Cast as lead in the first movement he was “Berlin’s miracle boy, spinning like mad…marvellous performance”.
The second andante movement is a beautiful Pas de Deux. As the central ballerina and her partner enter she starts a series of warm-up stretches using his arm as an “exercise barre”. MacMillan had become fascinated watching Lynn Seymour‘s stretching at the barre before a rehearsal and here he decided to replicate such effect. The ballerina balances on pointe in fourth position and stretches performing several full ports de bras. The danseur lifts the ballerina, supports and promenades her, balancing her on his knees for the final iconical pose. At times they look as if they are contemplating themselves in a mirror, recalling Robbins‘s Afternoon of a Faun in the way they look at each other. Complementing Shostakovich’s romantic mood all we have for background are the silhouettes of three couples slowly passing by and the hint of a sunset.
The final movement was originally conceived as a playful duet but, days before the premiere, Silvia Kesselheim’s original partner broke his foot. Unable to find a replacement MacMillan rechoreographed the duet as a solo and it has remained so ever since. The ballerina dashes through the stage surrounded by the corps who move in shifting diagonals and various geometric patterns. She is joined by the first and second movement couples in an outstanding display of academic virtuosity.
The designs for the ballet are from Jürgen Rose, John Cranko’s collaborator du jour. Concerto is danced on a heavily lit stage (except for the moody lighting in the second movement, suggestive of dawn) against a plain backdrop. The costumes are simple tunics in bright yellow, orange and a rusty shade of red, with white socks for the boys.
After the German premiere of Concerto, the local critics heralded a new promising era for the Deutsche Oper Ballet. ABT’s Lucia Chase, who was present at opening night immediately sought to acquire it for her company and Sir Frederick Ashton requested it for The Royal Ballet’s Touring company (now known as the Birmingham Royal Ballet).
Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Piano Concerto No 2 in F major in 1957 as a birthday gift to his 19 year-old son Maxim. It was the last of several pieces Shostakovich had written for his children to practice their musical skills on. Maxim was accepted into the Moscow Conservatory on the strength of his performance of the piece. That same year he premiered his father’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Nikolai Anosov.
The piece is jolly, lighthearted and even cheeky, with a section on the first movement mimicking the British sea melody Drunken Sailor. The second movement is an andante around a simple romantic theme with a melancholic undertone that seems to borrow strings and piano arrangements from Rachmaninoff. The final movement returns to and shares similar structures with the first movement’s allegro, closing with a virtuoso section in F major for the piano and the orchestra.
The work avoids the usual contrasting sections between the piano solo and the orchestra usually found in traditional piano concertos. Rather, it progresses from a theme (ie. the fundamental melody which is repeated throughout the piece) to a variation (ie. a modified version of the theme, slightly altered or set to a different accompaniment – you can learn more about theme and variations here). Shostakovich considered this piece a minor work with “no redeeming artistic merits”. But perhaps here the composer sought self-deprecation as a means to defend himself against attacks from his usual critics.
Your essential Concerto Spotify/iPod list should include the tracks below:
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
Original Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich (Piano Concerto No. 2, opus 102)
Original Designs: Jürgen Rose
Original Premiere: Deutsche Oper Ballet, Städtische Opera, West Berlin. 30 November 1966
Original Cast: I. Didi Carli, Falco Kapuste. II Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Holz. III. Silvia Kesselheim
Premiere 1st Performance ROH: 7 October 1974
Sources and Further Information
- Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan by Jann Parry. Faber and Faber, 2009. ISBN-10: 0571243029
- Concerto Notes on www.KennethMacMillan.com [link]
- Concerto Notes, Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
- Concerto Notes, ABT Repertoire Pages [link]
- Concerto Notes, the Royal Opera House Discover Pages [link]
- Wikipedia Entry for Dmitri Shostakovich [link]