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Audience at "Kenneth MacMillan's Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight" Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Earlier this month we attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium at Imperial College London. Celebrating the choreographer who would have been 80 this year, this full day event was held in association with The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Institute of Psychoanalysis and drew on psychoanalysts, scholars and dancers sharing insights into MacMillan’s ballets, along with rare archival footage and live masterclasses. A full register will soon be available through the new Kenneth MacMillan official website (which goes live December 11) but here are some of our own notes and thoughts.

To backtrack a little, my first exposure to MacMillan was a televised performance of his Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie. I remember being quite taken with the lifts where Juliet expresses her delight as Romeo tries to take her to the stars. So much could be said about young love and the feeling of one’s heart brimming with happiness with such economy of movement and no mime. I didn’t know much about MacMillan then but his work struck a chord with me. Later I had the opportunity to move to London and discover, via The Royal Ballet, the extent of his choreographic vocabulary, from full-length to short works, realising that MacMillan’s ballets were all about human emotions conveyed via eloquent steps.

At the time when MacMillan quit dancing and ventured into choreography, ballet was a decorative art form which provided an escape from reality. He set out to do exactly the opposite, turning reality and human suffering into compelling dance works. Putting this into context MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry introduced the session speaking of how he eventually became the “outsider”,  the most common leitmotif found in his works, first seen in female characters (Laiderette, Anastasia) but later appearing as males (Mayerling, Different Drummer). Kenneth had not been bullied or lonely as a child, but the death of his mother when he was 12 and the difficult relationship with his father and brother set him on a constant search for a surrogate family and for his own identity. Parry also remarked that these events led MacMillan to search for psychoanalysts to help him understand his fears and anxieties and to deal with depression. Whilst he was fascinated with Freud, MacMillan also worried about what would happen to his creative spirit if he dug too deep into his sources.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

We saw the practical extent to which MacMillan’s work and his creative sources provide rich psychoanalytical material. A panel headed by Dr. Luis Rodriguez de la Sierra (known to us from the “Connecting Conversations” series) offered links between MacMillan’s life experiences and his creative output. This panel juxtaposed the troubled relationship between brothers with the sibling relationship in Manon, where the older brother Lescaut “corrupts” and breaks her innocence by throwing her in Monsieur G.M.’s way; the fact that MacMillan’s father had been gassed in WWI (during the Battle of Somme) with the war aftermath from Gloria and his mother’s recurrent debilitating fits with Mayerling and Empress Elizabeth’s rejection of her attention-seeking son Crown Prince Rudolf. Another interesting discussion centered around  the fantasy of “dying together as an act of love”, an allegory present in Romeo and Juliet and in Mayerling and which the panel connected to Ernest Jones’s theory of a subconscious wish to return to the mother’s womb.

National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the last person to work with MacMillan (in Carousel), demonstrated via video that MacMillan could convey in 5 minutes of dance “what would take a playwright 3 hours with words”. In a short pas de deux from Carousel we saw  how movement marks the evolution of the main female character, from tomboy to woman in love. Actress Nichola McAuliffe also talked about her experience with MacMillan as a stage director. She explained that British Theatre traditionally had actors “dead” from the neck below and that working with MacMillan made her think about the physicality of her characters.

Former Stuttgart Ballet dancers Vladimir Klos and Birgit Keil at the Kenneth MacMillan Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

To illustrate MacMillan’s creative methods Birgit Keil and Vladimir Klos, former Stuttgart Ballet dancers who created roles in MacMillan ballets, described how he nurtured his dancers and sought a collaborative process. A fragment of the documentary A Lot of Happiness showed the choreographer rehearsing both dancers for a Pas de Deux based on Orpheus and Eurydice, giving them pointers of the type of movement he wanted and encouraging them to try different things. Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Dame Monica Mason also spoke of her experience. Tracing a parallel between Ashton and MacMillan, she said that the first one always expressed a preference for beauty and the second for reality, no matter how ugly that could be.

Speaking about “MacMillan’s subject matter” the eminent Financial Times critic Clement Crisp recalled audience reactions to the choreographer’s work, their discomfort with seeing “appaling grief represented by agonizing, ugly shapes”. A keen supporter who has seen every single MacMillan work (but for two short pieces made for ABT), Mr. Crisp eloquently spoke of the choreographer as a man of the theatre who knew about human suffering and found a way to show those terrible moments of life via fascinating and true choreography “which is ultimately what ballet is all about”, as well as in characters which “kept living after the curtain fell”.

Begoña Cao as Manon, Fabian Reimair as Lescaut and Antony Dowson as Monsieur G.M. in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

The final section focused on MacMillan’s “Creativity In Spite of Adversity”, his courage to stand firm and travel to where he could realise his vision. Mr. Crisp recalled masterpieces Song of the Earth and Requiem which were created for Stuttgart Ballet after Covent Garden’s administration worried about the use of Gustav Mahler’s music for choreography and, in Requiem’s case, that sacred music could offend religious sensibilities. These points were illustrated with excerpts from the documentary “Out of Line” where Sir Peter Wright, Clement Crisp and Deborah MacMillan shared their personal views on the challenges faced by MacMillan at home and abroad and his special link with Stuttgart Ballet.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

In addition to the masterclasses featuring two Mayerling pas de deux (Rudolf/Empress Elisabeth and Rudolf/Princess Stephanie) with Edward Watson, Cindy Jourdain and Iohna Loots from The Royal Ballet, and the Manon pas de trois (Manon/Lescaut/Monsieur GM) with Begoña Cao, Fabian Reimair and Antony Dowson from English National Ballet, the audience also had the opportunity to watch a full screening of MacMillan’s last work for The Royal Ballet, The Judas Tree*, with Irek Mukhamedov, Michael Nunn and Leanne Benjamin. This gruesome ballet (featuring a gang rape) touches upon the theme of betrayal in various ways. Original cast members Michael Nunn and Viviana Durante emphasised to the audience how MacMillan would let dancers discover the character during the creative process which, as Nunn said, “kept you on your toes”.

With so much background and valuable insights into Kenneth MacMillan’s universe, this was an event that will certainly enrich our experience and understanding of his compelling works. We now look forward to what the new official website may bring.


*The Judas Tree will be revived by The Royal Ballet in a Triple bill dedicated to MacMillan’s 80th birthday, together with Concerto and Elite Syncopations. These three pieces represent milestones in the choreographer’s career and different sides to his work. Concerto was the first piece he created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet as Artistic Director. Elite Syncopations, his ragtime jazz ballet, was made during his tenure as The Royal Ballet’s Director while The Judas Tree, his last work for the Royal Ballet, remains one of his most challenging pieces.

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The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

Concepts such as coding, decoding, generative systems, algorithms, computer programming, neuroscience and cognitive mapping seem more akin to geek lingo than ballet choreography and yet all these notions inform Wayne McGregor’s dance making.

Having trained in modern dance, McGregor is the first resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet to come from outside the company. Literally and figuratively breaking the line of succession, he said at the time of his appointment that he would not try to be like Ashton or MacMillan. Indeed, while his predecessor MacMillan  looked for inspiration in the human soul, McGregor seems intent on examining the human body and the sensorial experiences and responses derived from it.

Wayne McGregor in a Nutshell

Born in Stockport in 1970, McGregor studied dance at University College, Bretton Hall (Leeds University) and at the José Limon School in New York. In 1992 he started his own company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and in the same year was appointed choreographer-in-residence at The Place, London.

He was appointed the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006 following successful productions such as Qualia, Engram and the much lauded Chroma. In addition to regularly creating works for Random Dance, he has also choreographed for several ballet and opera companies around the world, including San Francisco Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Opera and La Scala.

His interests outside dance have resulted in several other associations which include curating a festival for the Royal Opera House (Deloitte Ignite, 2008) and choreographing movement for movies, plays (“Fram” at The National Theatre and the recent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), musicals and art galleries (the Hayward Gallery, Canary Wharf and the Pompidou Centre).

McGregor was involved earlier this year in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies – directing and choreographing the Baroque double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas, which have been recorded for DVD release. His new production for The Royal Ballet, Limen, premieres this week.

McGregor’s dance vocabulary is full of contrasts. It combines speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet and the majority of his pieces for the Royal Ballet have featured female dancers en pointe. Although he says he has not completely discarded the possibility of narrative works, this vocabulary is generally used to create and structure abstract pieces with a contemporary relevance inspired mainly by visual arts, architecture and, last but not least, by science.

Using science to understand art and creative processes is a topic that fascinates McGregor. Since 2002 he has been involved in a research project with a group of neuroscientists (from the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego) and psychologists to explore questions around how choreographic ideas are transmitted to dancers. Via this project he also hopes to learn more about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do. His appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer extends beyond creating ballets for the company and  involves nurturing, inspiring and transmitting all this creativity and knowledge to future generations of choreographers.

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the spaces in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. Wayne McGregor

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Works for the Royal Ballet

Symbiont(s) – The Clore Studio (2000)

Definition: An organism in a symbiotic relationship

Conceived for the intimate space of the Clore Studio (ROH) in close collaboration with the dancers, Symbiont(s) was McGregor’s first piece for The Royal Ballet at a time when Anthony Dowell was still the company’s Artistic Director. It also marked the first time McGregor choreographed a role for dancer Edward Watson, now a leading presence in most of McGregor’s works. It featured seven dancers in a series of duets, solos or trios en pointe and off pointe. Its central duet danced by Watson and Deborah Bull was later used on tour. Symbiont(s) won a Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in dance.

Brainstate – Linbury Studio (2001)

Brainstate was a collaboration between dancers from The Royal Ballet and from Wayne Mcgregor’s own company Random Dance (18 male and female dancers in total). It was done as a closing piece for an “all McGregor” evening alongside other work by Random Dance and a re-staging of Symbiont(s).

Qualia – The Royal Opera House main stage (2004)

Definition: A raw & sensory experience

Qualia marked Wayne McGregor’s debut on the big ROH stage, following an invitation from Monica Mason, who had just been appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director. It featured four lead dancers (Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov, Jaimie Tapper and Leanne Benjamin). Its highlight was a “sensorial” pas de deux for Watson and Benjamin which would later be used in various galas.

Engram – Linbury Studio (June 2005)

Definition: Patterns of neuro-physiological change thought to relate to storage of memories in the brain.

Part of the “Inspired by Ashton” programme, Wayne McGregor cast two of the Royal Ballet’s most classical dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, for a pas de deux set to art rock music (By Canadian group “Godspeed You Black Emperor” or GSBE). Engram showed these dancers under a different light, combining McGregor’s notions of angularity and rhythm with classical steps. 

Chroma –  The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2006)

Definition: The purity of a color or its absence from white or grey

For Chroma, McGregor worked with a small group of ten dancers. Some were already familiar with his work, others less so. It was the first time McGregor’s male muses Steven McRae, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson appeared together in one of his works (this trio re-appeared in Acis & Galatea and will be seen again in Limen) alongside ballerinas Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb. Chroma is McGregor’s only piece for the Royal Ballet which is performed completely off pointe.

Featuring a minimalist set designed by architect John Pawson to make the audience focus on the dancers’ very detailed articulations and in the “colour” provided by their own movements, Chroma was made in three weeks. The work is set to music by modern composer Joby Talbot, including several orchestrated tracks from The White Stripes (Aluminun, Blue Orchid and The Hardest Button to Button).  A hit with audiences and critics alike, Chroma won a number of prestigious dance awards, including the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award (Best Dance Production).

Nimbus – The Royal Opera House main stage, as part of “The World Stage Gala” (Nov 2007)

Definition 1: a cloud or atmosphere about a person or thing; 
2: an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign; 
3: a rain cloud

Nimbus was created one year after Chroma, specifically for the “World Stage Gala”. It was McGregor’s first official piece as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat A, it is a 10-minute short work performed by Marianela Nuñez, Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.

Infra – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2008)

Definition: Below

Alongside his productions for operas Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea, Infra is perhaps the closest Wayne McGregor has come to narrative work.  Juxtaposing his choreography with Julian Opie‘s LED backdrop of pedestrians, a haunting score by Max Richter and lighting by his longtime collaborator Lucy Carter, it infers relationships, ruptures, actions and reactions against the backdrop of our chaotic modern lives.

Dido & Aeneas – Acis & Galatea – The Royal Opera House main stage (March 2009)

McGregor directed and choreographed the Baroque operas Dido and Aeneas (a production he had originally done for La Scala) and Acis and Galatea bringing a rare collaboration between The Royal Opera and dancers from The Royal Ballet. Both productions have been recorded for DVD release.

Limen – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2009)

Definition: 3. Psychology, Physiology. The threshold of consciousness.

Limen, McGregor’s new 26-minute piece for 15 dancers (eight men and seven women) premieres this Wednesday. According to the choreographer it will be a meditation on ‘thresholds of life and death, darkness and light, reality and fantasy’. As he has done before with Chroma (John Pawson) and Infra (Julian Opie), Limen will feature an artistic collaboration with Japanese contemporary conceptual artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

Miyajima has designed a giant wall of blue LED lights flashing on and off which will reflect the individuality of each dancer and their unique personal movements. Limen will be set to a cello concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose distinct sounds combine orchestral music and electronics.

A list of McGregor’s choreographies for Random Dance, including current piece Entity as well as past productions Erazor, Amu and AtaXia can be found here

Videos

  • A short feature on Chroma [link]
  • A short feature on Infra [link]
  • Trailer for Infra [link]
  • A short feature on Limen [link]

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Eric Underwood in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of Qualia

At moments the choreography is in danger of seeming like a box of McGregor’s cleverest tricks – shapeshifting moves that flash through the dancers’ bodies, kaleidoscopic patterns of shape and line. But there is a genuine seam of strangeness in the work and, with the help of an eerily atmospheric score by Scanner, McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Engram

Cojocaru can make almost anything look good, but both McGregor and Brandstrup clearly understand how Ashton’s ballerina-worship can serve a dancer of today. McGregor turned her into a vision of fluidity in Engram, morphing between classical purity and eerie abandon. Dancer Federico Bonelli was her shape-maker, manipulating her to pulsating music by Montreal art-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A video montage of Ashton and his muses was a reminder of how he delighted in showing off a dancer’s virtuosity. Jann Parry at The Guardian [link]

Of Chroma

Chroma is exceptionally well judged. The 30-minute piece for 10 dancers is sombre and playful in turn, with the flesh-coloured costumes evoking an intense humanity, and the stunning “infinity” set by architect John Pawson both revealing the dancers and immersing the audience. Lucy Carter’s votive candle-like lighting intensifies the effect. Sarah Frater at The Evening Standard [link]

It is osteopathy as choreography, bones and musculature pulled and twisted, the dance fighting to escape from the sinuosities, the flexings and contractions of the body. It is movement introverted, self-obsessed, self-regarding, brilliantly done by its cast (who were deservedly cheered to the echo) and unable to escape from its formulaic, almost dogmatic manner. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Of Infra

Beneath the ordered surface of our daily routine, McGregor tells us, complicated forces are at work. We must connect, because all else is terror and the void. Edward Watson, clearly McGregor’s male muse, seems to pulse with angst – all torque, sinew and pale intensity. Eric Underwood burns with almost as cool a flame, and 20-year-old Melissa Hamilton, plucked from the corps de ballet, slashes the choreography to the bone with glittering, scalpel precision. Luke Jennings at The Guardian [link]

It’s a perfect abstract representation of the lines, quoted in the program, from T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn./A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.” The dancers, who slowly accrue onstage as Max Richter’s haunting melodies for strings begin over random noises (machines, voices), are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the digital crowd above, and Mr. McGregor imbues them with a touching humanity, even as they move in unimaginable ways. Roslyn Sulcas at The New York Times [link]

Upcoming Performances at the ROH

Agon/Sphinx/Limen – 4-18 Nov 2009, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Autumn Triple Bill.

New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19 Feb – 4 March 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Winter Triple Bill.

Chroma/Tryst/Symphony in C – 22 May – 11 June 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Triple Bill.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wayne McGregor’s Complete List of Works from Random Dance’s website. [link]
  2. Wayne McGregor Official Website [link]
  3. Wayne McGregor, a biography by Judith Mackrell. From the Chroma programme
  4. Wayne McGregor interviewed by David Bain. Ballet Association Report, June 2007. [link]
  5. Discover Limen on the ROH Website [link]
  6. Wayne’s World: When Ballet met Science. Euan Ferguson, The Observer, October 2009. [link]
  7. Wayne McGregor: Zen and the Art of Dance. Interview with Wayne McGregor by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, October 2009. [link]
  8. Step by Step guide to dance: Wayne McGregor. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian [link]
  9. Dido & Aeneas DVD [link]

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Kenneth MacMillan, one of the leading choreographers of the twentieth century, is credited with pushing the boundaries of classical ballet and challenging audiences to look beyond the idealised world of fairy tales into the reality and discomfort of their own mortal existence.

With ballets that probed into all extremes of the human condition MacMillan found a deeper way to engage the viewer, to make us empathise with the emotions flowing from his expressive choreography. As part of his 80th anniversary celebrations The Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Royal Academy of Dance are sponsoring a full day symposium which will explore the relationships between physical expression and emotional impact in the choreographer’s work.

Leading MacMillan interpreter Edward Watson, one of the symposium’s participants, has just finished a critically acclaimed run of Mayerling at Covent Garden, dancing the challenging role of Crown Prince Rudolf. We were delighted that Watson agreed to talk to us about the choreographer’s legacy and the way into MacMillan’s complex, yet so very human, characters:

Edward Watson. ROH Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Edward Watson. Photo: ROH/ Charlotte MacMillan ©

Let’s start with your recent performances as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. How much physical and emotional commitment does the “toughest of male roles” require and how do you resurface from each performance?

EW: There is no other way to go about it without being totally physically and emotionally committed to it. I don’t you think you can separate them, it’s all one thing. You just get yourself ready to commit musically, emotionally and physically, all of those things, to enter on it, to be believable and credible. In terms of how you feel afterwards…

Because it is such an intense role…

EW: It’s really intense and every show is different, but I never sleep after Mayerling, I am still awake at four in the morning. It’s completely draining, you feel drained after Act II. Actually after Act I you feel like you’ve done three acts already so… it is funny to get yourself ready for it. You don’t want to give yourself out too much at the beginning, otherwise you are not going to have enough energy to the end. In the first act I am always trying to pace myself and, knowing how you are going to feel at the end, you think: why would I do this to myself? But it is an amazing thing to do. I’ve never had any kind of experience like that where you feel you almost lived as someone else for a couple of hours. It’s incredible, a great ballet, it is just amazing.

In addition to Crown Prince Rudolf, Des Grieux and Romeo are all MacMillan classics you have danced a number of times in different places. How have your interpretations of these roles evolved over time?

EW: The biggest change has been with Romeo, because I’ve done it a lot now. Not that I think I wasn’t ready when I first danced it, but Lauren [Cuthbertson] and I weren’t ideally matched and we both knew that, so we relied on our youth to tell the story that way. This is something I have tried to keep. Romeo is a boy and Juliet a girl, they are kids, they are not a prince and a princess. Some people play it like a 20th century classic rather than being clumsy kids which is what they are in a way. The choreography for Romeo is particularly demanding. That I feel I am still trying to get right, to show the youth and abandonment while technically being tight and secure. I’ve now danced Romeo with Lauren, with Mara [Galeazzi] and with Leanne [Benjamin] so you find so many different things with whomever you are responding to or whoever is in front of you.

MacMillan’s characters are typically complex and they demand strong dramatic skills. How important is it to have a like-minded partner? Do you discuss a mutual approach beforehand or is it mainly an act and react dynamic?

EW: Both of those things. Some moments you find something has developed without talking. You are playing something in a certain way, your partner too and it works. When it doesn’t work we tend to discuss. You say, I don’t know what you are doing, what you are thinking or what are you trying to say through the way that you do that step, or is there anything I can help you with, for instance, in the way I lift you. The way into MacMillan is definitely through the steps. It’s not through putting on a face and acting. All is there to be discovered in the choreography. There is so much to be brought out that I don’t think you’ll ever stop finding things in movement. The amazing thing about being a dancer in those ballets is that you will always find something that you haven’t found before. You can connect those steps somehow to your character, to your situation with another character, tiny things like the way you phrase, the way you might stretch something, a look. It is all very physical and thought makes the physical thing happen or sometimes the other way around. It’s a total symbiosis. That was the genius of MacMillan and of the people he worked with when he made these ballets into huge successes: all those elements were exactly right.

So every time one approaches the choreography, there must be new things to be discovered?

EW: Physically everybody is different. I look very different to, say, David Wall [who created the role of Crown Prince Rudolf] or Irek Mukhamedov. So just as they approach steps musically different or physically different, so will I. In classical ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, there are set rules, very obvious rules of what looks right and what doesn’t, but when the choreography really describes character and character situation, there is so much an individual can find to say with a character. It is a dancer’s dream. Of course there are rules, there is set choreography to set music but you can find your way of saying certain things within those rules.

Are there any experiences or specific preparations that have enriched your interpretation of a particular role?

EW: I do a lot of reading. With Romeo I went straight back to the play. Kenneth worked really close to Shakespeare’s play and I know Lynn Seymour [who created the role of Juliet] did. There were a few masterclasses that Tamara [Rojo] and I did with Lynn where she read the text to us and described what he was trying to say at that point. I also read Manon, but it was a ballet I grew up with, watching it as a kid and dancing various parts always.

The most research I did was with Mayerling because Crown Prince Rudolf was a real person and so you have a responsibility to be very honest. I read a lot of books on the subject. Deborah [MacMillan] lent me a book which Kenneth gave her for her birthday which he based the ballet on. She lent me her copy so I could find things that he had underlined in there, things that were really important to him. I also had a weekend in Vienna, I went to visit Mayerling and saw the grave. It fascinated me, this ballet has always fascinated me since I was a kid, from having seen the South Bank documentary originally with Lynn Seymour and David Wall. It is one of those ballets that grow on you. The more you see it, the more you want to see it again. Being in Mayerling had an impact on me because it doesn’t come around that often. It wasn’t in the company for about 8 years while I was here.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. ROH/ Photo: Johan Persson ©

Did you do any new readings or research this time?

EW: I re-read The Road to Mayerling and when I visited the Mayerling lodge, which is now a convent, I found these weird photocopies outlining the events with dates and times, so I read through that, but I had already done so much before that I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to change. I wanted the character to build up more this time.

MacMillan revolutionised storytelling in classical ballet, taking it out of its comfort zone, digging deep into human psyche. How relevant are narrative ballets nowadays?

EW: I think people want story-based ballets. It is easier for an audience to want to come to a ballet with a story. Triple bills are harder because of the lack of a linear narrative for a whole evening. Alice in Wonderland is going to be Chris Wheeldon’s next thing [for the Royal Ballet] and I think it is the right time and I hope it is a success.

Having said that, MacMillan’s one-act ballets are what made me, what I grew up in. My first principal role was in My Brother, My Sisters. Those ballets say much about people, feelings and situations, and even Gloria, and Triad, ballets I did when I was younger, there’s so much in them that is not about set characters like Des Grieux, Rudolf and Romeo, but they are still such an amazing experience.

In the past you mentioned that your role in Gloria – one of MacMillan’s most personal ballets – was your favourite…

EW: Did I? I love that ballet, I really love it.

Which is your favorite one-act MacMillan now?

EW: It changes all the time, I have nice memories of all sorts of things but Different Drummer really changed a lot for me. Physically, it really felt like it fitted. I had to work very hard but I understood its physicality, I understood where he was going with it, and in a funny way, it’s the same kind of intense experience as Mayerling, only shorter, but also totally exhausting. It was a wonderful working time for me, Leanne and I were working together a lot and she had worked with Kenneth on the ballet, so she could help me a lot. And Monica Parker who coached us was really enthusiastic as it hadn’t been done for a long time, for about 15 years. It was a ballet people hadn’t seen, that a whole company hadn’t been involved with, so it was really exciting to have the responsibility of bringing it back and making people want to see it. That whole experience probably makes it my favorite one-act.

And your favorite full-length?

EW: Manon and Mayerling are both wonderful. Manon is a ballet that I had always wanted to do since I was a kid, since I was at White Lodge and it ended up being the last big MacMillan role that I debuted in. I love it and Mara is fantastic and I wouldn’t be anything in that ballet without her, it’s really about what she gives me. But more recently, and for the same reasons as above, I should say Mayerling, it is still kind of…it is still lingering on my back!

About the upcoming MacMillan symposium this November, can you give us any insights into what participants may expect?

EW: There will be discussions from psychologists and also from dancers and collaborators who were involved with Kenneth on creating those ballets and, demonstrations from people like me, doing bits of Mayerling. There’s also going to be archive footage, so people can see and discuss the ballets. It will be very interactive, people will be able to ask questions rather than just being presented to. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very interesting day, a real eye opener into what MacMillan is all about.

In your opinion, what is MacMillan’s greatest legacy to ballet?

EW: In my opinion, all of that work. Even those works that are considered failures or that aren’t danced so much these days. It’s so important that someone was constantly pushing classical ballet. It’s classical ballet pushed beyond what you would expect it to, either to tell a story or, like Song of the Earth, telling you everything about life, death and everything in between. No costumes, amazing music, choreography that moves you and you understand somehow through those amazing poems and Mahler’s music that someone can express those feelings to an audience. And that the very same person can tell the most complicated story, like Mayerling, through dance. I find it total genius that someone can do that. No stop and mime, all of those feelings are expressed through choreography.

Song of the Earth is my favourite ballet of all time to watch and the last few times I did it, I loved it. It’s so strange because you are very removed from everyone else. There’s more impact to be made [as the Messenger of Death] by being subtle and just gently there. The poems that inspired Mahler’s songs say “death is like a whisper” and that changed the way I did the role, it’s like a little whisper that’s always there or a feeling, slightly dimmer and you wonder why. It’s little things like that, that you can read and find out. When he was making the ballets MacMillan didn’t always tell people exactly what he wanted them to feel, but it was obviously in his mind, his influences from what he read, from what he heard, all this concerned him.

How transparent then, that even when he did not say it, he could actually find a way to.

EW: Well, that’s the kind of genius he was.


Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium takes place on Sunday, November 8, 2009 from 10am to 8pm at Imperial College London.

This all day event will include a series of set pieces – videos, masterclasses, presentations – interspersed with opportunities for interactive discussion among the participants on stage and members of the audience.

The day will be divided into four separate sections:

MacMillan’s Language – Gesture & Emotion Observed and Expressed

  • Includes videos, presentation and discussion with National Theatre AD Nicholas Hytner and actress/writer Nichola McAuliffe

MacMillan’s Creative Methods – Working with Dancer’s Bodies

  • Includes videos and Mayerling masterclass (Monica Mason with Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, Iohna Loots and Cindy Jourdain on Mayerling Act 1 Pas de Deux)

MacMillan’s Subject Matter – Breaking the Rules

  • Includes videos, presentations and discussion with FT dance critic Clement Crisp and Manon masterclass (Wayne Eagling with dancers from ENB on Manon Act 1 Pas de Trois)

MacMillan and the Institutions – Creativity in spite of Adversity

  • Film of MacMillan speaking, with comments from Peter Wright, Deborah MacMillan, Clement Crisp. Discussion on the creation of ‘The Judas Tree’ –  with dancers from its original production (Viviana Durante, Michael Nunn and Stephen Wicks)

The event will close with a screening of the complete ballet “The Judas Tree” followed by a social gathering where the audience will have the opportunity to meet and talk with the participants.

Full programme & booking details available from the official website: www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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The Mariinsky visit to London a few weeks ago and in particular the fact that they brought mime-less Soviet adaptations of ballet classics with them, generated much discussion among Covent Garden audiences about the importance of mime in ballet. When Konstantin Sergeyev revisited works such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire in the 50’s, balletic mime was largely scrapped in Russia as it was considered that new audiences did not need to be exposed to something as old fashioned and reminiscent from Tsarist times. The West would follow suit later on when it considered that dancing should be a complete means of storytelling with no additional form of narration.  Mime became moot.

But well performed balletic mime can be as artistic and as beautiful to watch as the dance itself. It carries forth the story, putting it into context. For instance audiences watching the Mariinsky’s Sleeping Beauty will be given no clues that the Lilac Fairy reverts Carabosse’s curse to princess Aurora by reassuring the whole court that if she pricks her finger she will fall into deep sleep but not die. Of course there is an argument that many of us will be  familiar with this fairy tale and that we do not need such level of detail in performance. On the other hand, omitting the Lilac Fairy mime means depriving audiences of one of ballet’s most moving sequences as this passage assists in developing her character, conveying a full sense of the Lilac Fairys warmth, kindness and wisdom as well as the contrast between good and evil, her calming gestures opposing Carabosse’s jerky, angry movements. All this is achieved by working the upper body, with face, arms and hand gestures that are completely integrated to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. Balletic mime is a stylish work of art.

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Although we hardly ever see mime in modern pieces, classic works that have been preserved or reconstructed by ballet companies such as ABT, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet (the latter boasting a pure mime tradition that goes back to the Bournonville schooling) tend to contain substantial mime sequences. As we just wrote a post on going to the ballet for the first time we thought the mime basics would also help prepare you for the performance ahead. Chances are you will come across lengthy declamatory, narrative or conversational mime passages if you are going to see a 19th century ballet classic and if you know the basics you won’t be left scratching your head:

Most commonly seen mime gestures:

  • Dance

Hands circle one another above the head, the arms moving from first to third position.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, just before Aurora’s solo, when King Florestan asks his daughter “will you dance for us?”

  • Forget/Think

Character touches the forehead with the index finger.

Ex1: in The Sleeping Beauty, when the evil fairy Carabosse asks the King and the Queen “did you forget to invite me?”

Ex2: in Giselle, before Hilarion calls Albrechts bluff he asks a bewildered Giselledo you really think he loves you?”

  • Die

Crosses arms in front of body in a low position.

Ex: when Giselle‘s mom (Berthe) says to the villagers “the Wilis will make wandering men dance till they die.”

  • Beautiful

Character makes a circle around the face with the palm of the hand.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, before showing Prince Florimund (or Desiré) a vision of Aurora, the Lilac Fairy asks him “do you want to see something beautiful?”

  • Promise

Point two fingers, held together (like a peace sign) upwards in the audience’s direction.

Ex: in Swan Lake, when Prince Siegfried promises to Odette that he will marry her and thus break the swan curse.

And also:

  • Why – both arms open outwards towards the other character
  • King/Queen – taps forehead with hand three times
  • Princess – taps forehead with hand two times
  • I/Me – point to own chest
  • You – point to the other person
  • Love – crosses hands over heart
  • Listen/Listening – cups hand over ear leaning towards the sound or taps the face close to the ears
  • Anger/Angry – bend elbows with fists pointed towards the sky, shaking them
  • Stop – Palm out
  • Engaged or Married – Point to the ring finger

A brief mime dictionary can be downloaded from the Pennsylvania Ballet website from this link

See balletic mime in action:

  • Giselle: Berthe narrates the legend of the Wilis

Move forward to 2:30 to see the full mime sequence where Berthe (Genesia Rosato) tries to warn Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) about the dangers of  too much dancing. She will tell all villagers of the presence of Wilis in the forest who come out late at night to prey on wandering men. Note the miming of: cemetery/burial grounds (the crosses), wilis (the wings, the hand on her chin) dance and die.

  • The Sleeping Beauty: Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy

In the prologue of the Royal Ballet’s current production of  The Sleeping Beauty you can see the complete sequence where Carabosse crashes Aurora’s christening and curses her, miming the gestures: forgot, listen, say, grow up, beautiful, die. The Lilac Fairy interrupts (“now you listen to what I have to say“) miming that if Aurora pricks her finger she will sleep until awakened by a kiss from a faraway land Prince.

  • Swan Lake: Odette and Siegfried
  • Move to 1:40 to see the full mime sequence in this video of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake production for ABT. The promise sign is mimed twice, first by Odette (Gillian Murphy) when she is telling her story to Prince Siegfried (Ángel Corella) and then by the Prince. Odette also uses mime to explain she is the Queen of the swans.

    • La Sylphide: Madge, Effie & her friends

    Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg characterised as Madge tells James’s fiance Effie and her friends their fortunes in this Bolshoi staging of La Sylphide (Move forward to 0:35). Notice how Madge predicts that Effie shall marry Gurn instead of James.

    See Mime Rehearsals:

    Sources and Further information:

    1. The NYCB website contains useful learning materials for the same Nutcracker mime sequence shown above [link]
    2. Pennsylvania Ballet [link]
    3. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic. [link]
    4. Ballet Mime for Little Ones via Neo Blog [link]

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