‘I’m always accused of dealing only with sex and violence but what I really deal with is life and death.’  Thus quoted Monica Mason, opening the St Hilda’s College/DANSOX Conference Kenneth MacMillan: Making Dance Beyond the Boundaries held on Saturday 16th March 2019.

Dame Monica, former Principal Dancer and Director of the Royal Ballet Company, was just one of many sharing their memories of MacMillan and his creative approach at this smörgåsbord of delights blending academic research, choreography and performance. On a wet and windy day, in political and climatic times that can sometimes feel reminiscent of the dark events triggered at Mayerling, we were treated to talks by MacMillan’s widow Deborah on how MacMillan worked with designers, Guest Lecturer Natalie Wheen on his innovative use of music, choreologists on how Benesh notation helps to preserve his choreography, and academic specialists on his historical imagination. The conference concluded with excerpts from a reconstruction of Playground by Yorke Dance.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992) was Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet between 1970 and 1977, and its principal choreographer from 1977 until his death, providing us with ballets now central to the repertoire, such as Romeo and Juliet, Manon, and Mayerling, as well as many shorter innovatory works, including The Invitation, The Judas Tree, and Playground.  His ideas were not always welcomed by the Royal Opera House, and in some cases he had to produce them elsewhere.  The reasons for this were sometimes puzzling; why was the Covent Garden Board so set against his choreographing Mahler’s Song of the Earth?

In a 1991 interview MacMillan said, ‘I wanted dance to express something largely outside its experience’, and there is no doubt that he achieved this, drawing on his eclectic interests in contemporaray film, history and literature.  Natalie Wheen showed how his choreography drew on his early interest in tap and the dancing of Fred Astaire.  Julia Bührle and Jane Pritchard had interesting archive material on MacMillan’s contemporaries and friends, John Cranko and Peter Darrell. I was particularly interested in talks by Helena Hammond and Laura Quinton on how MacMillan used literary and historical sources to develop both Manon and Mayerling. Choreographically, Hammond was persuasive in showing that in the opening scenes of Manon MacMillan inverted the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, contrasting Aurora’s relative ability to choose her Prince with Manon’s powerless fate. Quinton suggested that a similar inversion of Swan Lake exists in Mayerling.  Discussing The Judas Tree, Cristina de Lucas showed how MacMillan had been transfixed by the unfolding events in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, culminating in the now famous image of one male student standing in front of a tank. MacMillan represented this on stage, in part, with a shocking gang rape. I would have liked some feminist analysis here. Why did MacMillan, an artist always looking to innovate, return so often to male-to-female sexual violence, which is after all not the only metaphor for the expression of power imbalances? Was he simply reflecting patriarchal reality or was he seeking to explore something more psychologically disturbing within us, his issues of ‘life and death’?

All those who recalled working with MacMillan were hugely enthusiastic.  Both Monica Mason (the original Chosen One in The Rite of Spring in 1962) and Stephen Wicks spoke of the life-changing effect that MacMillan had on their careers.  All who had danced with him said how much they enjoyed the experience.  They spoke of MacMillan’s depth of inteerest in people in general and as individuals, and his ability to see things within a dancer that they had not known were there.  The material might be ‘difficult’ but the artistic endeavour and the willingness to be pushed ‘beyond the boundaries’ of dance were clear.  Susie Crow, Stephen Wicks, and the Yorke Dance Project illustrated this beautifully as they talked us through their reconstruction of Playground, adapted for a smaller company and stage.  The full version to be seen in Banbury on 4th April and subsequently in Salisbury, Swindon and the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House – as Susie would say, not to be missed!

Susanna Reece

20th March 2019

Details of the Yorke Dance Project Twenty Years Anniversary programme including performances of Playground can be found here