Kenneth MacMillan’s Choral Works Now & Then

The Choral Works Now

Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works Song of the Earth (1965), Requiem (1976) and Gloria (1980) must surely number amongst the choreographer’s most eloquent, moving and beautifully crafted ballets.  Ideally we would have preferred all three of these ballets to be staged during this season of celebrating MacMillan’s oeuvre.  Even though this was not to be, happily both Song of the Earth and Gloria were not only performed as part of the celebrations, but were staged for the first time by English National Ballet (ENB) and Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) respectively.

ENB’s first performance of Song of the Earth took place in October in a double bill with La Sylphide in Manchester, while Gloria opened with NBT in Bradford in a triple bill of MacMillan’s work.  The companies also performed the ballets at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, alongside performances by both Royal Ballet Companies and Scottish Ballet that spanned the decades of the choreographer’s creative life.  Fortunately there are still opportunities to see Song of the Earth at the London Coliseum (9th – 13th January) and Gloria at the Leeds Grand Theatre (16th – 17th March).

In case you’re not familiar with these ballets, here is a brief overview.  All three works are set to examples of iconic choral music that had lives of their own well before MacMillan created his choreography to them: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1909), Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1890) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloria (1959).  All of them deal with existential themes, including the omnipresence of death in our lives, the unnecessary loss of life, especially young life, to war, and the laying to rest of the soul in death.

Unlike MacMillan’s famous evening-length works, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon, these are not heavily narrative ballets and are relatively sparse in design.  In place of a narrative are intensely evocative images that arise from the themes, music score and lyrics.  An example is the famous image of eternity that closes Song of the Earth: to the elongated notes of the repeated word ewig, meaning forever, the three main figures (The Woman, The Man and The Eternal One or Messenger of Death) gradually move towards the audience, slowly rising and falling, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no break in the flow… Still rising and falling as the curtain falls.

Requiem was visually inspired by the drawings of William Blake.  Here the characters are more fluid than in Song of the Earth.  The central female character in white chiffon sometimes seems childlike, other times angelic (Parry 461-62); when she enfolds the male figure in a stylised embrace she appears maternal. Similarly, this male character can be interpreted in more than one way: in his loin cloth, is he a reference to Christ or to John the Baptist (462)?  Even the corps de ballet in Requiem can be perceived in contrasting ways, as both “mourners and blessed spirits” (462).

Gloria, inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, clearly references the trench warfare of World War I.  Sacrifice and loss are suggested by the configuration of the dancers in the shape of crucifixes.  Towards the end of the ballet the lead female dancer is supported by the two main male characters in a similar pose; in her ethereality and with her elongated but soft arms draped along their arms, she is also reminiscent of Giselle in Act II protecting Albrecht by the cross on her grave.

In recent years the principal roles in these choral ballets have been performed by such Royal Ballet luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Marianela Núñez, Tamara Rojo, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson. In fact, Song of the Earth was chosen by Darcey Bussell for her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007.

But Song of the Earth did not always enjoy the status it has nowadays. In 1965 it was quite a different story …

 

The Choral Works Then

Song of the Earth, Requiem, and Gloria are without doubt compelling works due to the imaginative and expressive choreography and perhaps because they are so rich in symbolism and allusion. And their history is equally compelling.

MacMillan is celebrated as a choreographer who was eager to extend ballet where subject matter was concerned, for example through the portrayal of rape in The Invitation (1958) or the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp in Valley of Shadows (1983).  However, the themes explored in the choral works were hardly new to ballet.  What was new was the treatment of those themes, how they were expressed.

In the Romantic era, when ballet enjoyed a great flourishing, themes of death, love, loss, evil, the spirit world, the afterlife, and the human soul were integral to ballet. These themes were expressed through symbols and metaphors in the narratives and characters of the ballets, and are still clear to see today in the two most celebrated works of the era: La Sylphide created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, and Giselle choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. Nowadays we might perceive the treatment of those themes to be rather quaint or naïve, although if we use some historical imagination, facilitated by last year’s documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet introduced by Tamara Rojo, with contributors David Allen (historian) and Marina Warner (mythologist), we might gain some insight into the kind of unsettling impact those works may have made in their early years.

It seems that the Royal Opera House Board members were similarly unsettled when MacMillan approached them about choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, as they rejected the idea on the grounds that “great music addressing elevated subjects, such a Mahler’s Song of the Earth, was unsuitable for ballet” (Parry 459).  If they did not recognise the similar “elevated subjects” within the Romantic repertoire, you would think that they might have been aware of them in Frederick Ashton’s wartime ballets, most famously Dante Sonata (1940). Evidently neither did they perceive the ballet music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Ravel to be “great music”.

The rejection from the Board was the reason why MacMillan mounted Song of the Earth on Stuttgart Ballet, where his friend John Cranko, another British choreographer, and mentor to MacMillan, was Artistic Director.  In Stuttgart the work proved to be a success.  So, only six months after the premiere in Stuttgart, the Royal Ballet staged Song of the Earth at Covent Garden, where it was “hailed as a major achievement” (Parry 305).

It would seem logical therefore that when MacMillan approached the Board in the mid-70s as Director of the Royal Ballet and Principal Choreographer, about creating a ballet to Fauré’s Requiem, that the response would be more positive than the reaction to the proposed Song of the Earth ballet.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fearing that such a ballet might “offend the religious beliefs of the public at large” (MacMillan qtd. in Parry 459) the Board again refused to commission the work.   Again MacMillan staged the work in Stuttgart; and again the work entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, though not before he had staged his third choral work, Gloria, for the Royal Ballet, this time with no objection from the Board.  Interestingly, MacMillan had decided to give exclusive performance rights to Requiem to Stuttgart Ballet for six years, by which time Beryl Grey had requested it for London Festival Ballet (Parry 464), suggesting the growing significance of these choreographic works by the early 1980s.  In fact, in 1982, Gloria was recorded by Granada Television for transmission on Remembrance Sunday 1982 (556).

Currently the Royal Opera House website describes Song of the Earth in proud and glowing terms as “Kenneth MacMillan’s powerful exploration … of love, loss and renewal”; Requiem is described as “moving” and “boldly inventive” “with some striking pas de deux”.  In our opinion MacMillan’s persistence in following through his choral projects resulted in some of the most distinctive, innovative and expressive additions to the British ballet canon, and we are indeed fortunate not only in being given the opportunity to see two of these works, but also in benefitting from the ENB billing of  La Sylphide from the Romantic era juxtaposed with Song of the Earth – two works that demonstrate such contrasting approaches to themes of human frailty, love, loss and transcendence in the art form that we love.

This post is dedicated to Helen Boyle and Andrew Dilworth.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … to coincide with the young Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmi Naghdi dancing the title role in Giselle, we will be thinking about celebrated Giselles of the past in British ballet companies.

References

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Royal Opera House. “Requiem”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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