The Royal Ballet was blessed with two magnificent choreographers in the last century: Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988), its founding choreographer; and Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992), his troubled, rebellious heir.

Kenneth MacMillan was difficult

Fred charmed everyone with his wit and elegance. MacMillan confounded people with his taciturn moodiness. He demanded a great deal of his friends. He would sponge off ballerina Georgina Parkinson for weeks, living in her house in Battersea, making international phone calls without offering to pay. He was untidy and a heavy smoker. He drank too much. When he was the Director of the Deutsch Oper Ballet in Berlin in the late 1960s he drank tea laced with whisky all day long because he was miserable. Consequently he had a stroke when he was 40, and his ill-health put more strain on his friendships.

He also demanded a great deal of his dancers, refusing (or unable) to communicate his ideas for a ballet and expecting them to find their own interpretations. In 1971, two years after his stroke, he met and quickly married an artist, Deborah Williams, who was 16 years younger than him. The marriage brought happiness, stability and a daughter into his life and ensured he lived in a permanent location — but it did not make him an easier creative genius to have around in the rehearsal studio.

Kenneth MacMillan’s work

Fred’s work was influenced by nostalgia for his Edwardian childhood and tinged with the mystic Catholicism that pervaded the air in Peru, where he grew up. His aesthetic was more feminine than masculine. MacMillan came from a skint working-class town in industrial Scotland and he grew up in the deprivations of the war in south-east England. His early ballets in the mid-1950s represented a generational shift in consciousness, being tougher than anything that would appeal to Fred, much more manly. Fred’s first ballet (1926) was called  A Tragedy of Fashion. It was described as chic and engaging. MacMillan’s first ballet (1953) was called Somnambulism. It was inspired by his anxiety attacks.

From the start MacMillan was compelled to trace dark pathways, and again and again he featured madness, pain and violence in his work. His dancers were raped or murdered on stage, they spun out of control, they committed suicide, they were abandoned, they set upon each other. But while his topics were frequently serious, his steps were always contained within classicism. His choreographic aesthetic enlarged the academic vocabulary with great inventiveness, and he never ceased to believe in the beauty and grandeur of classical ballet. He challenged the subject matter of ballet, not the form in which it was told.

Kenneth MacMillan and the decline of the Royal Ballet

Kenneth MacMillan took over the directorship of the Royal Ballet from Frederick Ashton in 1970. He struggled to create new work while managing a complex organisation and he resigned  in 1977,  although he remained closely associated with the company as Principal Choreographer. In her history of ballet Apollo’s AngelsJennifer Homans argues that there was increasingly a decline in aesthetic and technical standards at the Royal Ballet in the 1980s that reflected how public discourse and high culture in Thatcher’s Britain had likewise ‘fractured and deteriorated’. Controversially, she accuses MacMillan of being the architect of the Royal’s decline. She asserts that ballet ‘just could not do what MacMillan wanted of it,’ which was to be ‘brutal and realistic, a theatrical art that could capture a generation’s disillusionment and chart the depths of his own troubled emotions.’ She admits that he is capable of ‘craftsmanship and insight’, but accuses him of too many self-indulgent lapses of taste and judgement: ‘By the end, he had reduced ballet’s eloquent language to a series of barely audible grunts.’

Kenneth MacMillan: a national celebration

It has been 25 years since Kenneth MacMillan died of a heart attack backstage at the Royal Opera House during a revival of his ballet Mayerling. Since then, his reputation has been rehabilitated and the Royal Ballet has resumed its high status as one of the world’s foremost companies. He choreographed 60 works, but over time the ones to have entered the international canon are the three-act, evening length, story-ballets Romeo and Juliet and Manon. At his best, his work is celebrated for the raw intensity and mature acting skills it requires of his dancers. He mixes psychological realism and naturalistic movement with technical accomplishment in ways that audiences find exhilarating and dangerous. Says the dancer Sarah Lamb,  ‘It never feels like a reproduction on stage, but as if it’s actually happening. I can put so much of myself into a performance that afterwards, when the curtain has gone down, I can find it difficult to return back to myself. A part of me has been left behind on the stage.’

Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration was a short season of one-act ballets performed at the Royal Opera House by all 5 of Britain’s major ballet companies (18-27 Oct/1 Nov).  The retrospective shared the spoils of British ballet’s artistic heritage. It allowed for a reconsideration according to contemporary standards of MacMillan pieces that are rarely performed nowadays. It also allowed dancers from companies other than the Royal to tackle MacMillan and to perform on stage at ROH. In so doing, it showcased the breadth of the nation’s dancing talent to London audiences. The season was the inspiration of Kevin O’Hare, the Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet: artistic integrity plus commercial viability, the best of contemporary ballet company practice.

The Judas Tree

The Royal Ballet contributed two pieces to the season, and the one I saw was The Judas Tree (1992). This was the last ballet MacMillan choreographed and it epitomises the ‘lapses in taste and judgement’ that Homans abhors. The title refers to Cercis siliquastrum, a tree that produces clusters of pink flowers along the trunk and branches in spring that used to be said to symbolise the drops of  Judas’ blood when he hung himself in remorse for betraying Christ. The ballet is about guilt and betrayal: the program note that MacMillan provided as the wellspring of the work is a quote from Kahlil Gibran: ‘As a single leaf turns not but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrongdoer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.’ The tree in the ballet is the Canary Wharf tower, which at the time had only just been completed. It’s a kind of warped tree of life for the Thatcher era, as depicted by the artist Jock McFayden, who designed the set.

The action takes place on a building site and the cast list is 11 construction workers, the foreman and two friends and a woman.  The narrative is non-linear, one event is not necessarily the cause of the one that follows. MacMillan draws upon several intersecting references: the story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas is the most apparent, but there are hints of the brutal stories of abusers and victims by Hubert Selby Junior in Last Exit to Brooklyn. The woman could stand for the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene or Woman. The most controversial element of the story is that she is gang-raped by the workers at the instigation of the foreman who then hangs himself — there’s the guilt and betrayal. As his body dangles in mid-air, the woman returns, a lone figure amid the carnage.

Because the setting is so specific, if surreal, it is difficult not to read the ballet as an unfolding story. The steps also seem to ‘say’ something. The choreography is composed less of a series of movement phrases linked together than a series of gestures and individual steps that seem to embody discrete thoughts, interspersed with lots of running and walking.  These two elements combine to create a sense of incoherence — I watched, trying to decipher meaning.

Not only do the men rape the woman but they kill her, so the action depicts a sacrificial ritual. In places she is held aloft by the men with her arms outstretched in a cruciform shape. As this is a ballet, the gang-rape is not the least bit naturalistic and the moment is less intense than suggested by the synopsis. When it was first given there was consternation surrounding what was seen as a degradation of women. MacMillan’s biographer, the dance critic Jann Parry, viewed it differently from the very start. She described the woman as a force, ‘the female principle whom men deny at their peril.’ The woman can be defiled but not destroyed. She returns to the stage at the end to mourn the suicide of the Foreman, and stands alone covered in a veil — a symbol of  hope and fertility, life going on.

At this distance, the violence in The Judas Tree is not particularly distressing or horrific. There is no suspense and no menace, and the elegance of the slender lines made by the ballerina removes the violence further away from realism. What dates the piece is its preoccupation with masculinity. Despite what happens to her, it’s really all about him. This is also present in the unspoken social critique represented by McFayden’s set, a kind of never-mind-the-bollocks bolshie-ness. The ballet is not transgressive in the end, it’s more of a disgorging of male sentimentality and self-pity.

Nonetheless, the music is all scintillant percussion and wind and the dancing pulses with fervour. MacMillan created the Foreman role on Irek Mukhamedov, an athletic dancer who had recently joined the Royal from the Bolshoi. Together they devised many imaginative leaps with unexpected turns of direction and beats. There is no distortion or extreme flexibility in the shapes and positions as there would be if Wayne McGregor was in the choreographer’s seat. The dancers of the Royal Ballet give a spirited account of the weird world view depicted in The Judas Tree. They leave a part of them behind on the stage — the part of them that honours and reveres the memory of MacMillan, the company’s other great choreographer.

Image from The Judas Tree of dancers jumping