The DANSOX Conference Kenneth MacMillan: Making Dance Beyond the Boundaries was an opportunity to reflect on and discover more about one of the twentieth century’s greatest choreographers. It was attended by distinguished practitioners and scholars in dance, and generously open to the wider University and general public.

Dame Monica Mason and Deborah, Lady MacMillan gave insights into what it was like to work with Kenneth MacMillan, his interest in contemporaneous events in society and the arts, his willingness to engage with designers new to the theatre, and his relationship with and support from Ninette de Valois. Dame Monica described de Valois ticking off the company for not co-operating in the creation of La Fin du jour (’all that matters is what you give to your choreographer’), and Lady MacMillan described the occasion when de Valois and MacMillan, seeking out a new designer, mistook University College Hospital for the Slade (also on Gower Street)!   Dame Monica, speaking of Song of the Earth (1965), conveyed a rare sense for what it is like to dance to the words ‘Ewig, Ewig, Ewig …’ and to feel ‘foreverness’. Later on, the afternoon included a discussion between Susie Crow and Stephen Wicks, who, like Mason, danced and created new work with MacMillan. Crow and Wicks talked about the practical aspects of dancing MacMillan’s ballets (such as the importance of phrasing), and paid tribute to his stimulation and support for a generation of dancers who wanted opportunities to create new work on different scales, which resulted in Sea of Troubles (1988). This session, in particular, drew out MacMillan’s fascination with partnering, his mastery of the danse d’école, and his ability to see the familiar in new ways and find things in dancers that they did not know that they had in them.

Choreologists Anna Trévien and Diana Curry talked about Benesh notation and the challenges involved in reconstructing works relying on notation, film, and other evidence such as the musical score. Questions from the audience included one from Geraldine Morris (author of Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography) about the extent to which Benesh notation can capture style, which is surely one of the greatest difficulties in re-stagings. The morning concluded with an entertaining talk by guest lecturer Natalie Wheen, who spoke about MacMillan’s deep understanding of music, supported by rare film footage of Lynn Seymour dancing.

The afternoon included five academic papers, three on MacMillan’s works, and two about his contemporaries John Cranko and Peter Darrell. Helena Hammond spoke about Manon (1974), followed by Laura Quinton on Mayerling (1978) and Cristina de Lucas on The Judas Tree (1992). All three drew out the connections between MacMillan’s works and contemporaneous social or political concerns.  Quinton discussed the way in which Mayerling makes the past present, revealing the motivations of characters from a pre-Freudian age in a post-Freudian work.  De Lucas argued convincingly that The Judas Tree, created after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is about the betrayal of the vulnerable by those who should have protected them. Hammond’s paper discussed the ways in which Manon fits with the nearly contemporaneous development of new historicism in the academy, and gave a practical choreographic analysis of the intertextuality between this ballet and The Sleeping Beauty.  Julia Bührle, speaking on Cranko, and Jane Pritchard, on Darrell, fleshed out the choreographic milieu in which MacMillan worked.  I hope that all this research will be published.

The Conference rightly concluded with a dance performance: a presentation of extracts from the revival of MacMillan’s ballet Playground (1979) by Yorke Dance Project led by Yolande Yorke-Edgell.  It was an extraordinarily intense experience to sit within a couple of feet of the dancers in the Jacqueline du Pré auditorium as their danced enactment of children’s games (which are not just games) embodied the cruelty that society metes out to outsiders.  Susie Crow, who worked with the company on the re-construction, Yorke-Edgell, and the dancers then discussed a range of issues ranging from the technical (why was only Oxana Panchenko on pointe, and how did pointe facilitate certain sliding movements?) to the practical problems of recreating a work in different venues (originally the sound of the dancers’ opening clapping game emerged from the sound of the audience applauding the conductor before the curtain rose, but this effect is impossible in a venue with neither a curtain or an orchestra).

St Hilda’s, with DANSOX, has taken the lead in supporting dance as a developing academic discipline in Oxford. The collegiate system is particularly important as a vehicle for enabling exploration of new areas of research that cross the University’s traditional academic structures, and through DANSOX, Professor Susan Jones has brought together scholars with interests ranging from classics, history and English to neuroscience, music and philosophy. The MacMillan Conference, interweaving research and performance, was a magnificent example of engagement between academia and practitioners in ways that advance and disseminate our understanding of dance within the University, the dance profession, and beyond.

Maggie Watson

31st March 2019

Find out more about Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) here