How to Handle a Rope

While full length pieces such as Mayerling, Manon, Anastasia and Romeo and Juliet invite reflection on MacMillan’s recurring theme of the Outsider, a mixed bill of his one act ballets, such as the Royal Ballet’s latest, gives audiences a chance to shift focus and contemplate MacMillan’s wide range. From academic classical to modern ballet, from abstract to story-based or semi-narrative, this current triple bill shows his diverse work and vision.

Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano in Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Concerto, originally created for the Deutsche Oper, is a celebration of academic virtuosity and abstract dancing. In the first movement the eye is immediately drawn to the ever-astonishing Steven McRae and the very musical Yuhui Choe. In the iconic second Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather project an aura of solemn beauty. A pity that opening night suffered from some technical inconsistencies from the corps in a piece that is exactly designed to show off collective discipline. But hopefully these points will be sorted out as the run progresses.

The meat in the middle, The Judas Tree, was MacMillan’s last ballet. It is a semi-narrative work which explores the theme of betrayal, loosely based on religious archetypes. Ten years on, it continues to challenge and divide critics and audiences:

…evoking the nature of Judas’s betrayal of Christ, it also details the sexual and social manners of our time. It is a palimpsest, with meaning layering and commenting on earlier meaning, where MacMillan’s concerns with the subterfuges of personality receive startling and startlingly truthful realisation. You look at The Judas Tree and you discover shifts in social, emotional, even theological perceptions about betrayal. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times

The group murder the Christ figure and the foreman hangs himself; the woman reappears, serenely powerful once more. All of this sounds slightly silly written down, and The Judas Tree is hardly an audience pleaser. But on stage, fuelled by Brian Elias’s savage score, its intricate web of betrayal, provocation and despair is conveyed through steps which are both beautiful and violent at the same time. Sarah Crompton at The Telegraph

Since the main problem affecting this Judas and this Jesus, however, is their various degrees of involvement in baiting, bullying and gang-banging the heroine, and since the heroine occasionally conflates the roles of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, there’s no good reason for taking the Christian connections with any seriousness. The plot has been compared to Pinter’s “Homecoming”; it moves onto degrees of sensationalistic onstage violence that Pinter eschewed. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times

Honestly, opera can engage in killing children and get rave reviews as in Jenufa.  Why does Macaulay find MacMillan choreography about sexual manipulation so reprehensible? Haglund’s Heel in reaction to Alastair Macaulay

Whichever argument one sympathises with – “truthful” or “unnecessarily violent” – The Judas Tree is full of interpretive possibilities, with perceptions and understanding altering as the leading cast does. On opening night for instance we saw the figures of Judas and Christ almost swapped. Carlos Acosta was an introspective Foreman, whose power is diluted by the actions of the temptress woman (Leanne Benjamin) and his friend. As the “Christ-like figure” Edward Watson was much less the victim and more the agitator, provoking and fueling the Foreman’s jealously. Here we see the woman as object of an intricate sexual game and in killing her and betraying his friend the Foreman leaves his own trail of repressed feelings.

Carlos Acosta as The Foreman and Leanne Benjamin as The Woman in Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

The dynamics changed with the second cast where Thiago Soares, in a smashing debut, took over the Judas/Foreman role looking every inch the leader of a gang (and we thought the rings he wore on his fingers were a touch of genius), with Johannes Stepanek a more victim-like Christ figure/Friend. This Foreman uses the woman (Mara Galeazzi) as a means to assert his power. He lets his gang get close to her but never really intends to share her. The woman seduces and uses the Christ figure to free herself from the Foreman’s power. Losing control and feeling betrayed, the Foreman feeds her to his gang and shifts the blame to his friend, two last desperate attempts to restore the balance of his power.  Things completely escalate out of control and, in a disturbing climax, he hangs himself with a rope tied to the scaffolding at the construction site setting of the ballet. Acosta and Soares complement each other in their opposite interpretations, revealing to us two sides of the same ballet. On that note, we wish both performances were being filmed (apparently the first cast is).

Elite Syncopations comes next to round off the bill and send us home in a lighter mood. This parade of social dances to happy rhythms of Ragtime is pure entertainment with wonderful touches of self-parody. Particularly funny were Michael Stojko and Natalie Harrison in the Alaskan Rag; the section where a short guy has to keep dancing to the tune of “a whole lot of woman”. In the first cast Steven McRae was again a highlight as the “Friday Night” suitor. With Elite Syncopations MacMillan wanted to create something he could “toss off and walk away from” and indeed, it leaves us with that lingering feeling of returning home after a fun Friday night out.

Marianela Nuñez in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • [...] In Greek mythology Asphodel Meadows is the place in afterlife where souls flounder forever. Here the concept is translated into three movements danced by three principal couples and a corps de ballet of 14 clad in admittedly dull and unremarkable costumes (think corseted getups). Each couple responds to Poulenc’s music with suggestions of a backstory while the corps seamlessly move and shift through delightful choreographic phrases which more than once reminded me of MacMillan’s abstract works (in particular Concerto as it was still fresh in our minds from this earlier triple bill). [...]

  • [...] Royal Ballet’s current revival of MacMilan’s Concerto, The Judas Tree and ragtime ballet Elite Syncopations closes tonight. We send it off with this quick look at Ian Spurling’s stylish lycra costumes [...]