Kenneth MacMillan wiped the smile off ballet’s face. The choreographer, who came of age in the 1950s, spurned the fanciful gentility traditionally associated with classical dance and wrenched its energies towards psychosexual realism. From the dark precincts of his full-length works – Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Mayerling and Anastasia – to one-act ballets like The Invitation, there’s a preoccupation with the suffering of outsider figures – terrible grief, lust, psychosis, abjection. Watching a MacMillan ballet, the well-coiffed fairy tale prince and his bejewelled jerkin seems a distant memory. Yet MacMillan was also an exacting classicist, as much indebted to Petipa and Ashton as he was to the more recalcitrant spirit of the Royal Court’s angry young men, jazz, German expressionism, contemporary dance and cinema. This classicism, and a sparkling wit, is displayed wonderfully in the first mixed bill performed as part of a national celebration of the choreographer, in which the UK’s five classical companies join forces on the Covent Garden stage to mark the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s death.
Scottish Ballet’s newly-designed revival of the little performed 1960 work Le Baiser de le fee is a quiet triumph and one that will find a proud place in their repertoire. It was MacMillan’s only attempt at a fairytale besides 1989’s The Prince of the Pagodas, but despite the titular fairy and her phalanx of ethereal beings in tutus, there’s not much storybook simpering here. The bitterness of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale (in which a baby, marked by a fairy’s kiss, grows up to abandon his fiancée, in thrall to the former) aligns it with much of MacMillan’s narrative work.
Against a forbidding mountain-peaked backdrop and the off-beat complexities of Stravinsky’s score (a tonally-shifting tribute to Tchaikovsky), Constance Devernay glitters dangerously as the fairy, whipping off confounding turns, the sharpness of her footwork a match for the little spiked crown on her head. In her chilly manipulations and oblique motivations it’s possible to read something of the crushing cruelty of forces impervious to human fate, and yet the choreography is inflected with a kind of leg-wrapping sensuality that makes it seem intensely personal and all the more horrible. There’s a moment where the conventions of classical vocabulary are skewed to hypnotic effect – the young man (Andrew Peasgood) squats and gazes up rapturously as the fairy executes a triumphant tilting balance (attitude penche) away from him, her leg hovering above his befuddled head.
As the fiancée, Bethany Kingsley-Garner dances with a combination of blithe lightness and vigour – the mischievous capering steps with which she mirrors the young man and the lyrical carriage of her arms anticipate a sexual happiness that’s forever stymied. Instead she’s left stooped and searching, an anguished outsider moving to the unresolved rise and fall thrum of Stravinsky’s musical anti-apotheosis.
Both other ballets on the bill, Elite Syncopations and Concerto, demonstrate just how funny MacMillan could be. Birmingham Royal Ballet begin with the plotless Concerto, a work imbued with a sunny warmth and wit that demands absolute precision from the corps. When the jaunty virtuosity of Shostakovich’s piano concerto veers into military pomp, the dancers respond in kind with a parade of prancing pointe work and shifting formations. There’s even a flat-footed march offstage that’s countered by soloist Momoko Hirata’s brief wiggling shimmy – a touch of humorous hoofing amid the pageantry. The second movement pas de deux (for which the work is best known) is performed with an astounding limpid clarity and restraint by principals Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton. It’s a Mozartian kind of marvel, with such a lovely fullness of phrasing that never overripens into romantic mawkishness. Though some of the solos in the third movement seem oddly unspontaneous, BRB’s Concerto is a cracking tribute to the master.
So is the ragtime confection Elite Syncopations, performed by members of the Royal and English National Ballet. Clad in bodysuits that marry 1920s dapperness to 70s acid-bright psychedelia, the dancers perform their Charleston-and-cakewalk-inspired vignettes – variously slinky and sweetly comedic – with the musicians gussied up in boaters and waistcoats on a bandstand behind them. ENB’s Precious Adams is outstanding in the slyly flirtatious Calliope Rag, while cane-twirling Akane Takada is a vision of sleek precision. Although there’s some roughness in the male ensemble, the whole thing is such a delight, so full of jazzy trots and pom-pom berets and balletic vaudeville swagger, that cancelling the shrink subscription seems like an option for half an hour. Such is the surprising gift of MacMillan.
Concerto / Le Baiser de la fee / Elite Syncopations were performed at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration. Click here for more details.