It was the major event of the ballet year: a festival marking 25 years since the death of Kenneth MacMillan, bringing all five of the U.K.’s major classical companies (the Royal, Birmingham Royal, English National, Northern and Scottish Ballets) onto the Royal Opera House stage, plus the small and indomitable contemporary Yorke Dance Project into the studio theatre. A formative choreographer of 20th-century ballet, MacMillan is commonly associated with the character-driven dramas of three-act works such as Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling and Manon, so it was illuminating to be able to focus on only one-act works, in a gamut of styles.
The Judas Tree, MacMillan’s last work, deals with a theme that he returned to several times over the course of his career: the rape of a woman. It was unavoidably viewed today against a wider backdrop where revelations of sexual harassment by Trump, Weinstein and other powerful names across all sectors, together with an outpouring of disclosures by women of all backgrounds, revealed such harassment as not only persistent and widespread, but also systemic. The Judas Tree revolves around a gang rape – a blatant and brutal enactment of the sexual subjugation of a woman by a male-dominated society. That makes it – potentially – an explosively powerful theme to explore artistically. But that demands an exploration of the rape and its conditions, and an interrogation of the exercise of power. Alas, even on third viewing, all I could see in The Judas Tree was a violation enacted — a spectacularly unedifying approach.
The story (apparently inspired by the Gnostic gospels) goes like this. First, a woman is carried onto a construction site in a white shroud, already more a symbolic object than a character. Unveiled, in a lurid leotard, she proceeds to both tease and copulate with the site foreman and his two sidekicks, while a gang of construction workers circulate wolfishly. One of the sidekicks appears to actually “like” her, which the foreman resents, so he rapes her, then leaves her to the workers to rape as a group, after which he kills her, which upsets his sidekick, which incites the gang to turn on the sidekick and kill him. Finally the foreman hangs himself, and the ghost of the woman returns in the white shroud.
The choreography itself is powerfully wrought, and the company perform it with absolute conviction (anything less, and it would collapse). Dramatically, though, it is wilfully blind to the questions it raises. The woman is never alone onstage or the subject of any scene; rather, she is a transactional object, passed between the men, with no status of her own. We can’t help but feel her pain and abjection, but the narrative drive and destination is all about the foreman and his mate.
The Judas Tree is a mass of disavowals, evasions and displacements, wrapped in a legitimising tissue of religious allegory
On this note, it’s also worth pointing out another, largely undebated subtext. Just before hanging himself, the foreman plants a kiss on his friend’s cheek. Rather than the “Judas kiss” of betrayal, it smacks of repressed desire. Indeed, take away the woman, and the entire ballet would come across as a clichéd gay fantasy: bare-chested construction workers in ripped overalls, all worked up and with no outlet until they end up in a group sex scene. Yes, The Judas Tree really is about the men, but not in the way that it thinks. It is, rather, a mass of disavowals, evasions and displacements, wrapped in a legitimising if incomprehensible tissue of religious allegory. Dear Lord, please spare me.
As ever (and as here), The Judas Tree provoked the most heat around the MacMillan season — a shame, in some ways, since there was plenty of different work to savour and think about.
The Fairy’s Kiss (Scottish Ballet) is far more traditional balletic material – a folktale featuring a young man confusedly pursuing three icons of femininity: comely maiden, brazen hussy and elusive fairy. It’s a nicely choreographed piece, but you sense MacMillan straining against its winsomeness.
For my tastes, he could have strained a little harder in Gloria (Northern Ballet), an anthem for lost youth that brims with familiar First World War tropes: poetically doomed men, poetically sorrowful women. Far more interesting was Yorke Dance Project’s Sea of Troubles, a chamber ballet that distills (albeit murkily) the essentials of Hamlet into a quartet of interchanging characters, in a style more redolent of mid-century modern dance (particularly Graham technique) than ballet.
Song of the Earth is charged with a mysterious symbolism that seems to run in the arteries of a piece whose surface is all quiet restraint
But the best were two abstract works. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Concerto (to Shostakovich) shows MacMillan as a master of group composition and musical form and, in its central duet, enraptured by the supple beauties of the classical adagio. And Song of the Earth (English National Ballet, to Mahler) is an outright masterpiece – again, tautly tied to the music, but now charged with a mysterious symbolism that seems to run in the arteries of a piece whose surface is all quiet restraint. That is not a quality commonly associated with MacMillan, but as the festival showed, with a choreographer as varied as this, what you find in his work may say as much about you as about him.