October 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan.   The festival Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration hosted by the Royal Opera House brings together two weeks of performances of MacMillan repertoire by not only the Royal Ballet, but also Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Yorke Dance Project, who will be performing his late work Sea of Troubles in the Clore Studio and on tour.  Oxford Dance Writers pays its own hommage to the master here: Susie Crow, a founder member of chamber company Dance Advance for whom Sea of Troubles was originally made and and herself an original cast member, writes about the work, its genesis, and the experience of reviving it for performance by today’s dancers.

Sea of Troubles was commissioned from Kenneth MacMillan by Dance Advance for touring to small and mid-scale venues.  It was officially premiered on March 17th 1988 at the Brighton Festival.  A tour of over 35 performances in what was then the Southern, South East and Eastern regions followed, culminating in two performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. In the following year there were further performances by the company including at Madrid’s Festival de Otoño, and the company was supported by the British Council to perform it at festivals in China and Germany.  In 1991 the work entered the repertoire of Scottish Ballet for a few performances; and in 2002 it was performed by an ensemble lead by Adam Cooper and Sarah Wildor at the Exeter Festival in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of MacMillan’s death.  It was revived at short notice by Scottish Ballet for performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014; and in 2016 was remounted from the original notation by Jane Elliott for Yorke Dance Project, who are currently touring it and performing it at the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration.  I was called in as a member of the original cast to coach and rehearse a new generation of dancers.

To give some sense of the context in which this unusual work was made: resigning from the directorship of the Royal Ballet after 7 years in 1977 allowed MacMillan to concentrate on choreography, and work with other companies.  He made a series of uncompromising and exploratory works with challenging subject matter, beginning with Mayerling for the Royal Ballet and My Brother My Sisters for Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, Playground for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1979, Valley of Shadows in 1983 and Different Drummer (based on Wozzeck) in 1984.  From 1984 he spent 5 years as Artistic Associate of American Ballet Theatre, ostensibly bringing additional narrative repertoire to balance an American ballet scene dominated by plotless dance works, and mounting The Sleeping Beauty.  He was also exploring theatre direction and dance on television, including a new version of The Seven Deadly Sins.

Meanwhile Dance Advance was emerging.  Jennifer Jackson sees our initiative as rooted in the culture of the Royal Ballet under MacMillan’s direction – alongside respect for the classic repertoire she recalls “the unparalleled excitement and vitality surrounding the creation of new work on the main stage”* at the Royal Opera House.  Leslie Edwards was leading the Choreographic Group, which provided regular opportunities for aspiring choreographers within both Royal Ballet companies to make and informally present small scale works.  There were more of us than both Royal Ballet companies could accommodate; a need emerged for additional opportunities outside the companies programming to explore and develop new ballet-based work.  In 1983 Jennifer and I both participated in the annual game changing International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers, that year under the rigorous and thought provoking direction of Alwin Nikolais.  In the following year a small group of us (Jennifer and myself, Michael Batchelor, Sheila Styles and Graham Lustig) began to make and show our pieces under the name of Spectrum Dance.  This eventually lead to an invitation to tour new ballet based work through the regions, to theatres which could not accommodate the major companies and classic repertoire; and Dance Advance was born.

We did not wish to go down the route of cut-down versions of classic repertoire with recorded music. Our interests and aims were:

  • To make new ballet based work on a different scale and for different performing contexts and audiences
  • To work with live and new music (consequently chamber or electronic rather than orchestral repertoire)
  • To explore working collaboratively in creation (we made three works this way)
  • To have the artistic freedom of independence unconstrained by the pressures of making work to suit the needs of large institutions.

A certain compromise was necessary to start with for an unknown company.  Our first programme was thus a triple bill with one composite work by ourselves, and two works by established choreographers.  The opener Moments Remembered by Singaporean choreographer Choo San Goh working at that time with the Washington Ballet was a plotless but romantic response to Scriabin; our closing work Classified a light-hearted exploration of interacting characters from Lonely Hearts advertisements with specially composed music; and the meat in the sandwich was MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles.

What could we offer MacMillan? We had worked with him as dancers and performed his repertoire, so were attuned to and familiar with his working methods and movement. We could provide 6 experienced dancers at soloist level (Jennifer and myself, Michael, Sheila and two further recruits Stephen Sherriff and Russell Maliphant), a chamber ensemble of four musicians (the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time configuration of violin, cello, piano and clarinet).  We had inevitably limited budget and time; but crucially we could offer him the freedom to do what he liked.

It can be seen that in Sea of Troubles MacMillan was building on already established strands of interest:

  • Familiar composers.  He had used Webern for My Brother My Sisters and also in combination with Schoenberg in Different Drummer.  He had also used Martinu; most notably for the striking expressionist one act Anastasia which subsequently became the last act of the full length work, but also alongside pieces by Tchaikovsky more recently in Valley of Shadows.  It is worth noting his interest and skill in juxtaposing music by different composers in single choreographic works in ways which brought out narrative and dramatic themes.
  • Exploration of more contemporary movement.  In 1981 he had evoked the matriarch Isadora; in 1984 he had a chance to work directly with distinguished contemporary movers on the Venusberg scene in Wagner’s Tannhäuser for the Royal Opera; Linda Gibbs, Kate Harrison, Christopher Bannerman and Ross McKim of London Contemporary Dance Theatre.  This must have been a very positive experience, for the following year he worked again with three of these on solos for a Contemporary Dance Trust Gala.  He expressly mentions in the Anglia TV Folio documentary about Sea of Troubles his interest in developing a hybrid of contemporary and classical dance; hence the decision to choreograph a barefoot work, which necessitates setting aside specific technical possibilities (such as multiple pirouettes and pointework) afforded by the ballet shoe, and exploring greater use of the floor.
  • As evidenced in so many of his works, an abiding interest in human psychology and motivation.  Hamlet provides a wonderful opportunity to explore relationships between the characters in their roles as son, mother, father, husband, lover.

The piece opens with four vignettes like haiku, distilling the relationships and situations of the play into tiny gestural scenes set to Webern miniatures, the Four Pieces for Violin and Piano Opus 7.  These are followed by five expanded danced episodes set to Martinu; two Nocturnes for Cello and Piano, his Bergerette No. 3 for Violin, Cello and Piano, and two movements from his Piano Trio No.3.

So what are the particular and notable characteristics of this late work?

It is very much an ensemble piece. Dance Advance was too small to have a conventional ballet company hierarchy with stars and corps de ballet, and this was reflected in a piece for a team of soloists, in which all of us had opportunities to shine individually but were also part of a close-knit group.  Many MacMillan ballets are built round the core of one or more central pas de deux, which were often a starting point for him in construction.  But here remarkably there are no freestanding duets; the intense relationships portrayed are always seen in their wider relationships with other characters, in space and with other episodes.  Every scene includes both foreground and background action in resonant spatial design, and unforgettable images and groupings which heighten the meaning and significance of the dance.  An obvious example is the ghost, in many scenes a body in the centre of the stage which the characters cannot avoid, or must step over; a recurring reminder of the crime from which the action spirals out.  Perhaps this is one reason for the work being so unknown; it is virtually impossible to do it justice by drawing out extracts from its interwoven completeness.

MacMillan’s approach to the story was not to follow the linear progression of Shakespeare’s play but to fragment the narrative, concentrating on selected episodes and refracting them as if in a broken mirror, so that they emerge repeated yet seen from different perspectives.  The dancers constantly switch between six central characters; Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, The Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Ophelia and (very briefly) Polonius.  Deborah MacMillan clothed us in simple neutral costumes, long mottled silk shifts for the women with flowing skirts which could be manipulated, and black trousers and white shirts for the men.  Characters are identified by simple symbolic additions; crowns for Claudius and Gertrude, a wreath of daisies for Ophelia, a shroud for the Ghost, a blood stained handkerchief for the murdered Polonius.  The piece is set pragmatically and economically against black drapes, the only scenic element a hanging silken mesh curtain.  Some have seen this Brechtian structure and pared down design as a reference to the play within the play in Hamlet; particularly in the opening vignettes.  I think it also holds a clue as to the manner of dancing the work perhaps requires, in which the symbolic gestural elements and dance material can seem most powerful when simply and precisely performed, without too much histrionic display of emotion, retaining all their ambiguity and openness to multiple interpretation.  Even at its most violent the choreography retains a disciplined and close relationship with the music; the apparently spontaneous is in fact highly structured.

Recent study preparing for workshops on the ballet as part of Yorke Dance’s outreach programme has brought out powerfully MacMillan’s use of recurring gestural motifs, and I have admired the way these simple ideas come back recognisably in myriad forms throughout the work, portrayed by different characters and in different situations.  Images of falling; instability and wobbling; shaking and quivering; weeping. MacMillan has been able to seamlessly incorporate mimetic gestures and develop them into expressive dance movement, with increasingly complex significance, adding to the sense of doubt and mounting confusion in Hamlet’s tormented mind.  I realise now too how shrewd MacMillan was in drawing out our particular personalities and characteristics as dancers and embedding them in the work without our consciously knowing; using our individual contributions to show different dimensions of the characters.

Innovative in its structure and sophisticated in its dance language, I think Sea of Troubles stands the test of repeated examination. There is always more to find within it, more refinement of understanding and performance possible; it is endlessly satisfying to work on.  Dance Advance could take pride that despite the limitations of our resources we were able to provide MacMillan with a fertile and sympathetic environment that contributed to the generation of choreographic work of the highest quality.  The piece was a joy to work on, both for us dancers, and from his own words, MacMillan.

Sea of Troubles will be 30 years old in 2018.  There have been long periods when it has been out of sight and out of mind; and crucially for dancers, out of body.  MacMillan was a huge supporter throughout his life of Benesh Notation, and his work is preserved in scores lodged at the Benesh Institute, now part of the Royal Academy of Dance.  A condition of his making the work was that Dance Advance should arrange for it to be recorded in Benesh.  So Jane Elliott sat by MacMillan’s side recording it in the making.  Her detailed knowledge has been crucial to its accurate reconstruction for Yorke Dance; previous performances by other groups having been mounted from video, which provides only one viewpoint and one performance with all its idiosyncracies and occasional errors.  The score is like a recipe; however the dance itself, like the dish, only truly exists in its manifestation in performance.  Even once the movements as outlined in the score are learned there are nuances of intention, feeling and interpretation which are not captured on the page and perhaps may never have been verbally articulated; that need to be found and recognized in the doing.  The contribution of dancers who have embodied roles and in particular those on whom work was made can thus bring unique insights from an internal perspective unavailable to those watching.  I could never from my partial perspective and memory have taught the complete work – but triggered by the music and seeing it performed by others I had an intense recollection of my part in it and what I saw of the rest of it as a participant, untapping buried tacit knowledge of aspects of movement, expression and musicality.  Dance remains very much an oral tradition handed on in shared practice from one generation to another; oral modes of transmission still shape and influence its body of knowledge and allow a particular access to its depths.

I think that when I was dancing this ballet I had an internal emotional and kinaesthetic script within me which I constructed from the dance material; a sense of on-going narrative – not necessarily literal nor realistic, but purposeful – which gave intention to every action of the dance.  Yet transferring this personal view to a new cast is only part of what may be said.  We were a very particular group of dancers carrying imprinted in our bodies a tradition of ballet schooling, style, attitudes and repertoire, a Royal Ballet habitus, of which we were at that time largely unconscious.  However much we may have wanted to break free from the establishment, those unconscious dispositions will have informed our responses to Kenneth’s choreographic requests and instructions.  Today’s young dancers are shaped by different training influences and conceptions. The piece can no longer be taught as we would have learned it, like fish swimming in a familiar sea.  In rehearsal it becomes necessary to be aware of what cannot be taken for granted as known, and may now need to be made explicit, if we are to honour the work and make appropriate decisions as to what is essential and what may be optional in its execution.  But also to recognize that a different group with a fresh perspective may bring to light hidden depths that will make the work sing again for a new audience.

Susie Crow

10th October 2017

This presentation was originally given as part of the open rehearsal and lecture demonstration on Sea of Troubles with Susie Crow, Yolande Yorke-Edgell and dancers of Yorke Dance Project hosted by DANSOX, Dance Scholarship Oxford on 16th February 2017.

*Jackson, Jennifer (2004) ‘Problems of perception: A Sea of Troubles. Looking at MacMillan’s work from the inside out and the outside in’ in Revealing MacMillan: 2002 Conference Proceedings – London, Royal Academy of Dance