Kenneth MacMillan’s School of Ballet Sex, Neurosis and Grit

“Kenneth MacMillan was the dark genius of British ballet — its destroyer, if you listen to some,” the critic Ismene Brown wrote in an article about the celebration in The Spectator magazine.

But it wasn’t just MacMillan’s subject matter, which could include rape (“The Invitation”), incest (“My Brother, My Sisters”) and sexual sadism (“Mayerling”), that bothered critics. It was also his use of ballet technique to suggest states of extreme emotion and erotic desire. In 1981, in a piece about the Royal Ballet’s 50th-birthday season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Arlene Croce wrote that the danger to the “pearly classicism” of the Ashtonian style “is from this new religiose preoccupation with the human body and its contortions which is now so pronounced in MacMillan’s ballets.”

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Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Tyrone Singleton and Jenna Roberts in “Concerto” at the Royal Opera House. Credit Andy Ross

Looking at his ballets now, their physical demands look tame compared to the athletic requirements of many current ballet choreographers. And if his subject matter is sometimes brutal, the choreographic content is mostly firmly classical, though often extended into new expressive terrain.

In MacMillan’s 1965 masterwork, “Song of the Earth,” beautifully danced at the celebration by English National Ballet, the gestures and imagery are idiosyncratic and strange, sometimes alluding to the Chinese T’ang poems used (in German translation) by Mahler in the score. Women delicately mime picking flowers, or are turned upside down when the text, sung onstage by a tenor and mezzo-soprano, alludes to a pavilion reflected in water. But these details and vignettes are part of an austere classicism, rather than a new choreographic language, slowly building to evoke a poetic and specific world.

More surprising, because less well-known, was “Concerto,” the first work that MacMillan made when he took up a new job as the artistic director of Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1966. (He returned to England in 1969 to take up the directorship of the Royal Ballet.)

“Concerto,” danced in the celebration by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is a bright, pure exercise in ballet classicism, set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and, among other things, it’s a brilliant demonstration of MacMillan’s musicality, not an aspect of his work I had previously considered. The music’s jazziness is echoed in the hip-tilted inflections of the first and third sections, and its marching rhythms are reflected, without emphasis, in the phalanxes of moving bodies that might refer to armies or to the militaristic drill of the corps de ballet.

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Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson of the Royal Ballet in “The Judas Tree,” performed as part of the MacMillan celebration. Credit Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

But it’s the second movement, an Adagio, that is most affecting. Here, a woman holds on to a man, executing a smooth, flowing sequence of arcing bends and languorous stretches. (MacMillan said he was inspired by watching Lynn Seymour, a longtime muse, warm up at the barre.) It’s particularly interesting in the light of current thoughts on the conventionality of male-female partnering in ballet; here is a moment in which the man is cast as nothing more than a support — and yet MacMillan creates something poetic and ambiguous in the matter-of-fact relationship: What are they thinking when their eyes meet at the end?

Other MacMillan pieces feel less important or interesting; the 1974 “Elite Syncopations” (performed by a mix of principals from different companies) is set to music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and its insistent perkiness and slightly hammy jokes pall, even though it is choreographically challenging and smoothly constructed. “Gloria” (well danced by Northern Ballet), created in 1980 and set to Poulenc, is both moving and slightly dated in feel (this is partly a costume problem), with a ballet vocabulary that makes much of the physical tension between soaring uplift and grounded, earthbound despair.

And then there is perhaps the most difficult ballet in the MacMillan oeuvre, “The Judas Tree.” Set on a construction site in the London Docklands, it features a single woman and 12 male laborers. The woman, both seductress and victim, is raped by the men, before one of them is murdered and another commits suicide. There are biblical allusions to Jesus, Mary, Judas and perhaps another disciple, but the story line is muddled and hard to interpret. (Who is Judas, I kept wondering.) The choreography, however, is excellent: inventive, expressionistic, surprising, emotionally compelling. You can’t look; you can’t look away.

It’s an impossible ballet to like, though, and in light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and their repercussions, hard questions become even harder. Does the aesthetic beauty of ballet tame and make palatable the violence we see onstage? Or does it show us aspects of human behavior we shy away from, especially in an opera house? Do we judge the subject matter or the art, and are they different things?

These are questions that have in some ways haunted MacMillan’s work from early on. This 25th anniversary celebration made a strong case for his position as a major 20th-century artist without providing neat answers.

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