Kenneth MacMillan: Steps Back In Time review – the road to greatness

Barbican, London
Viviana Durante revives early works by Kenneth MacMillan in a programme full of poignant insights

When the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan died in 1992, he left behind him more than 90 ballets, created over 39 years. His last evening was spent at Covent Garden, at a revival of his ballet Mayerling; during the performance he suffered a fatal heart attack backstage. The principal dancer performing the lead role of Mary Vetsera that night was Viviana Durante, then 25 and a noted interpreter of MacMillan’s ballets. A quarter of a century later, in commemoration of the choreographer’s life, Durante has staged a programme of early MacMillan works, with excerpts from House of Birds (1955) and Danses Concertantes (1955), and a full-length performance of Laiderette (1954), performed by dancers from the Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Ballet Black.

The most interesting aspect of these pieces is the way they prefigure themes and motifs that MacMillan would develop in later, greater works. Choreographically, they reveal how he tilted against balletic convention from the start. Time and again, we see idiosyncratic variants of the classical vocabulary. Darting heads, counterintuitive body lines, unexpected articulations of wrist and foot. House of Birds, set to music by Federico Mompou, is a strange and sinister piece, adapted from a Grimm fairytale about a boy (Thiago Soares) and a girl (Lauren Cuthbertson) lured into enchanted captivity by a predatory, beaked bird-woman (Sayaka Ichikawa).

Lauren Cuthbertson (The Girl) in MacMillan’s House of Birds.
Lauren Cuthbertson (The Girl) in MacMillan’s House of Birds. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

All the characters have clear movement signatures, the lyrical lines of the girl’s choreography contrasting with the staccato spikiness of the bird-woman and the tight, bound moves of the boys she has enslaved. Cuthbertson imbues her steps with a dewy freshness, and shows how MacMillan often achieved his effects through the simplest of means. A leg swung in front of her and, with a soft leap, swung back into arabesque, perfectly describes the airy and radiant freedom she enjoys before her capture.

The dark pall cast by the second world war, which had ended a decade earlier, is everywhere in this work. In Different Drummer, her biography of MacMillan, former Observer dance critic Jann Parry describes the choreographer as “obsessive about the war”, and in House of Birds we see the introduction of themes of repression and captivity that he explored on a greater scale in ballets such as Anastasia (1971), and Valley of Shadows (1983). Based on Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the latter contrasts idyllic family scenes in prewar Italy with the horrors of the Nazi death camps, while in Anastasia the privilege and parental love enjoyed by the Romanov children is made more poignant by the terrible fate that awaits them. In his poem The Second Coming, written in 1919, the year following the Romanov family’s murder, WB Yeats writes that “everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned”, and his words apply perfectly to MacMillan’s ballets.

Akane Takada and JoséŽ Alves in Danses Concertantes.
Akane Takada and JoséŽ Alves in Danses Concertantes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

The icily brittle duet from Danses Concertantes, set to Stravinsky’s score and performed with assiduous attention to detail by José Alves and Akane Takada, shows that even MacMillan’s early abstract work had a fractured, dangerous edge. But it’s in Laiderette, with music by Frank Martin, that we see his most anguished themes assembled. The story’s heroine (Francesca Hayward) is a waifish commedia dell’arte clown, rejected by her threadbare troupe and left on the steps of a grand house, where a dance is taking place. Invited inside, she is courted by the host (Soares) until his cruel guests pull off her wig and mask, revealing her to be bald and ugly.

MacMillan’s choreography for his heroine veers between deformed classicism and a blundering, moth-like flutteriness, which might have been made for Hayward. Artless and open-mouthed, her hands clawing and her neck straining piteously, she desperately seeks acceptance and love. According to Parry, the dancer who created the role of Laiderette, Maryon Lane, “recognised her character as a projection of Kenneth, scared that the world would reject him if people knew what he was really like.” Undoubtedly true, but as so often, there’s a broader resonance to MacMillan’s imagery. The itinerant clowns, hollow-eyed, etiolated, and dressed in little more than shredded rags, are universal symbols of dispossession, while Laiderette is every outsider victimised for being different.

Durante is to be thanked for resurrecting these works, which not only cast a fascinating light on the existing MacMillan repertoire, but reveal much that is beautiful and poignant, and might otherwise have been lost.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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