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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

The Nutcracker Now

As is now the tradition, there is plenty of opportunity to see The Nutcracker this Christmas.

The Royal Ballet’s season at the Royal Opera House runs from December 5th December till January 10th, while Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 24th November to 13th December and then just before the new year at the Royal Albert Hall with Simon Callow as the voice of Clara’s magician Godfather Drosselmeyer.  English National Ballet begins its long-established annual Nutcracker season in Southampton at the end of November, followed by over a month at the London Coliseum. And through most of December and January Scottish Ballet is touring the ballet in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Newcastle.

If you’re not able to get a ticket for one of these live performances, or if you prefer the cinema, you might be able to catch the live screening of the Royal Ballet on December 5th.

One of the ballerinas dancing the two different roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Royal Ballet is Francesca Hayward.  Last year she featured in a documentary broadcast on national television on Christmas Day itself: Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet.  This also marked her debut in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  As well as showing her dancing in rehearsal and on the stage, it depicted her at home with her grandparents in Sussex, where the story of her first encounter with a classical ballet – a video of The Nutcracker – was recounted with warmth and humour.  Meanwhile, at ENB Francesca Velicu, who gained acclaim earlier this year in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, makes her company debut in the dual ballerina role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So popular has the ballet become, that Northern Ballet theatre are already advertising David Nixon’s version scheduled to tour in November and December 2018.

The Nutcracker Then

So how did a ballet created for the Imperial Russian Court in 1892 become a British tradition of family Christmas entertainment?

Well, The Nutcracker has a long and varied history in this country.

The first important British production was staged on January 30th 1934 by the Vic-Wells Ballet, which was to become the Royal Ballet 22 years later. This was the first complete Nutcracker to be staged in Western Europe, 42 years after the premiere in Saint Petersburg.  Alicia Markova and Stanley Judson were the stars of the ballet (Anderson 92-93), but Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut under her original name of Peggy Hookham as a Snowflake in the same production (93).  Only three years later the Company staged a new version with Fonteyn as the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by Robert Helpmann (93).

But the Vic-Wells was not the only company to stage the ballet in the 1930s, when British ballet was still in its infancy. Alicia Markova, the original British Sugar Plum Fairy, set up a company with Anton Dolin, and from 1935 to 1937 they showed excerpts from Act II as they toured the country (Anderson 96; Pritchard 69).

After spending some time abroad, Markova and Dolin returned to England and realised that in post-War Britain there was an increasing interest in ballet.  In 1950 they formed Festival Ballet (later London Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet) with a view to popularising ballet, making it affordable, and bringing it to the provinces as well as performing in London (Teveson 89, 93).  And this is where The Nutcracker really starts to take off in Britain.  In its very first season Festival Ballet already produced a full staging of the ballet and established the tradition of performing The Nutcracker every year, although the ballet wasn’t always performed in its entirety, and was shown at various points throughout the year. However, by the 1960s the tradition of a Christmas season of the ballet was well underway.  As Jane Pritchard puts it, the 1957 production by David Lichine, designed by Alexandre Benois “may be said to have established the ballet as a popular Christmas treat in Britain” (70-71).

ENB now performs its annual Nutcracker season at the London Coliseum.  Although we think of it as an opera house, originally the Coliseum was a variety theatre.  Festival Ballet’s first production was at the Stoll Theatre on Kingsway, which was once a cinema, as was the New Victoria Theatre, another venue for this Company’s Nutcracker, and the theatre where the musical Wicked is currently running.  For many years too the annual Nutcracker was performed in The Royal Festival Hall, a venue that was conceived as democratic, relaxed and welcoming (Open University).  So it’s interesting that the tradition of the ballet’s annual runs became established through regular performances in venues connected to enjoyment and family entertainment as much as to high art and exclusivity. 

In 1976 Ronald Hynd’s production of The Nutcracker was broadcast by the BBC, performed by London Festival Ballet, led by Eva Evdokimova and Peter Breuer.  By this time Scottish Ballet also had its own version by Peter Darrell, the founder of the Company.  Staged for the first time in 1973, this ballet was created only four years after the establishment of the Company, originally named Scottish Theatre Ballet. Initially Act II was performed as part of a triple bill earlier in 1973, and then the full ballet was staged at Christmas, starting a tradition of annual Christmas performances for the Company (Anderson 150).  So this is a similar pattern to the one established by Festival Ballet in the 1950s and ’60s. The Peter Darrell production was revived three years ago and is in fact the very same production that is being toured this season in Scotland and Newcastle.  

 

In our opinion The Nutcracker was integral to the building of an audience for ballet in Britain, an audience that spanned class and age. True to its story, the ballet has become associated with Christmas festivities, family and friends.  And promising young dancers can be given a chance to tackle a ballerina role in the presence of an audience that is perhaps less critical than the usual audience for classical ballet.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … we will be looking at Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works, two of which are being performed in the new year by English National Ballet and Northern Ballet Theatre.

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Anderson, Robin. “The Scottish Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 143-67.

Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet, directed by Hugo Macgregor, Oxford Film and Television for British Broadcasting Corporation, 25 Dec. 2016.

The Open University. “Royal Festival Hall”, OpenLearn, 26 Nov. 2001. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.

Pritchard, Jane. “Archives of the Dance (18): English National Ballet Archive”, Dance Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68-91.

Teveson, Claire. “London Festival Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 87-110.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017