Definitive work … Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon
Kenneth MacMillan was a working-class boy who went to the top of the elite world of ballet, roughing up its conventional decorum with works featuring tortured psyches, damaged sexualities and a string of outsiders and misfits.
Born in Dunfermline in 1929, MacMillan was the youngest child of a poor family. His father was first a miner, then a chicken farmer; when that didn’t work out, the family fled to Great Yarmouth, where his father fared little better, and turned increasingly to drink. MacMillan’s mother, who had epilepsy, died when he was 12. Young Kenneth turned to dancing. Exceptionally talented, he was accepted by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, and moved to London, aged 15.
He began dancing with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), but debilitating stage fright brought an abrupt end to his performing career. MacMillan was nevertheless a precocious dance-maker, and even his earliest experiments – Somnambulism (1953), Laiderette (1954) – showed his distinctive choreographic flair. By 1955 he was creating works for the company, and he quickly became the second choreographer (after Frederick Ashton); he also created pieces for Western Theatre Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Real-life romance … Romeo and Juliet
In 1965, he scored a huge hit with his first three-act work, Romeo and Juliet, but was deeply upset by the management’s refusal to commission a piece to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, a score they considered sacrosanct. Instead, MacMillan made Song of the Earth for the Stuttgart Ballet (directed by his old friend John Cranko), where it was an immediate success. Though the Royal Ballet quickly relented and staged the work themselves, MacMillan felt betrayed. He left in 1966 to head the ballet of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin – where he had a dismal time. Chronically insecure at the best of times, he became severely depressed, and drank heavily.
In 1970, MacMillan returned to the Royal Ballet as artistic director, but things scarcely improved. He was temperamentally unsuited to management, and many ballet fans and critics, unhappy about Ashton’s dismissal from the post, resented him (one Ashton devotee stalked MacMillan through the streets of New York making vomiting noises behind his back). MacMillan subsisted on an insalubrious diet of alcohol, cigarettes, antidepressants and psychoanalysis – and yet still produced definitive works, including Manon, Elite Syncopations (a rare comedy) and Requiem.
Challenging and emotional … Chanson
He resigned as director in 1977, but stayed as the company’s resident choreographer, a role to which he was much more suited. Furthermore, his marriage in 1974 to Australian artist Deborah Williams, and the birth of their daughter Charlotte, gave him new emotional stability – though he continued to explore dark themes aplenty in his ballets. Alongside his work at the Royal, he was artistic associate of American Ballet Theatre from 1984 to 1990. He survived a heart attack and throat cancer, and continued creating new works until his death in 1992 of a second heart attack – alone, backstage at the Royal Opera House, during a performance of his ballet Mayerling.
Watching Kenneth MacMillan
MacMillan was heavily influenced by postwar theatre and the angry young men movement (playwright John Osborne was a particular inspiration), and many of his ballets are psychodramas that have much grittier themes than ballet had dealt with before. He was interested in exposing raw emotion and complexity of character – especially the unacknowledged or repressed sides of the psyche. But he was also a ballet man, and part of the fascination of his choreography is seeing how far he stretches the classical style to make it expressive, without taking it to breaking point. Physically full-on duets were his forte. When choreographing, he would typically create a pivotal pas de deux first and fill in the rest later, sometimes sketchily.
MacMillan is best-known for his big narrative ballets – Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Mayerling – but he produced many shorter works. He was by nature a storyteller (even his most abstract ballets have suggestions of plot and character); but don’t look for the familiar balletic pleasure of yearning hearts and idealised loves. Instead, you’ll find corrupted innocents, social hypocrites, murderers and whores aplenty – as well as incest and rape. Don’t look for consistency, either: MacMillan could veer between genius, excess and claptrap in a trice – and deciding which is which still divides opinion to this day.
Margaret Hill was MacMillan’s first muse, but his most famous and enduring was Lynn Seymour, who created roles in many of his works. MacMillan talent-spotted several very young dancers, notably Monica Mason in the 1960s, Alessandra Ferri in the early 1980s, and Darcey Bussell in 1989. Bolshoi-trained Irek Mukhamedov was also a great inspiration in his last years. Nicholas Georgiadis was his closest and longest-standing designer; Deborah MacMillan, his wife, owns the copyright for all his works.
Twirling inspiration … Irek Mukhamedov in Mayerling
Kenneth MacMillan was a dab hand with the knitting needle, and would jot down knitting patterns and stitch counts on the same scraps of paper that he used for choreographic notes.
In his own words
“There is a class system, an old-boy network to which I’ve never belonged and I never will.” – Quoted by Peter Brinson, Independent, 1992
“What I wanted to put on stage had to have more reality than much of what I was seeing in the 1940s and 50s … Little of what I was seeing then had any contact with a real world of feeling and human behaviour. Ballet looked like window-dressing. I wanted to make ballets in which an audience would become caught up with the fate of the characters I showed them.” – Quoted by Clement Crisp, 1991
“We have to challenge audiences who think ballet [is] light entertainment. A lot [are] stuck in an arrested emotional development at the time when they first saw Swan Lake.” – Quoted by Sarah Frater, Evening Standard, 2002
In other words
“To his public, Kenneth MacMillan was an enigmatic figure. His ballets would lay emotions bare, challenging and provoking audiences, but the man who created them remained a mystery.” – Jann Parry, at the beginning of her biography of MacMillan, Different Drummer (2009)
“MacMillan took the gritty realism accepted in theatre and shoved it into the fairytale decorum of ballet.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent, 2002
“He was fascinated by social and sexual hypocrisy, and by loneliness, by what society does to people.” – Lynn Seymour, talking to Zoe Anderson, Independent, 2004
“No other significant dance-maker of the 20th-century had such a wildly fluctuating place in the ballet pantheon – from absolute adulation to utter dismissal.” – Allen Robertson, Dance Now, 2002
I think it’s fair to say that he had “issues”.
Ballet’s big Mac.
Antony Tudor was something of a stylistic predecessor of MacMillan’s, also making dramatic psychological dances using a classical style. Peter Darrell and John Cranko were student contemporaries of MacMillan’s who both went on to make dramatic, narrative works – Darrell at Western Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet), Cranko at the Stuttgart Ballet.
Face to face … a portrait of the dancer and choreographer
Now watch this
Lynn Seymour and David Wall in Romeo and Juliet, filmed in 1979
Alessandra Ferri and David Wall in Chanson (1981)
First part of a documentary on MacMillan, featuring interviews and clips
Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante in Mayerling, 1978
MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry discusses the man and his works.
There are also several videos on the new MacMillan website, an excellent resource for all things MacMillan.
Where to see him next
MacMillan’s works are in the rep of several companies. Try the Royal Ballet website first.