Kenneth MacMillan: Steps Back in Time: House of Birds / Danses Concertantes / Laiderette
Viviana Durante Company
Steps Back In Time is one for history of dance aficionados and / or Kenneth MacMillan fans. Many were involved in getting this programme off the ground.
In a labour of love Viviana Durante, formerly a star in The Royal Ballet’s fold (a memorable Giselle partnered by Irek Mukhamedov), on whom MacMillan created roles in Winter Dreams and The Judas Tree, presents a one-hour draft of MacMillan’s choreographic work from the 1950s: a beautiful 18-minute extract from House of Birds, a three-minute pas de deux from Danses Concertantes, both created in 1955, and the full 22-minute 1954 Laiderette.
MacMillan (1929-1992) is revealed in embryo, in his mid-twenties, still finding his choreographic feet, but what assured feet, even though one reads of insecurities and outsider feelings. It is, of course, that complex make-up that defines his oeuvre today.
Influenced by John Osborne and the “angry young men”, he wanted gritty reality drama in his ballets, human flaws, strong emotions not fairy tales. Yet he found his allegorical House of Birds with its ardent ‘Romeo and Juliet’ choreography in the Brothers Grimm Jorinde and Joringel.
An evil Bird Woman witch snares young children and turns them into birds. Young love—frisky, joyous, she melting in his arms, arching over his back; he breasting the brambles to reach her—breaks the spell, removes the encircling rope at the end of which the Girl flutters to anxious music.
Lauren Cuthbertson is The Girl rescued by The Boy (Thiago Soares) from The Bird Woman (Sayaka Ichikawa of Ballet Black)—needless to say the pas de deux and Cuthbertson's solo are conspicuous evidence of MacMillan’s early talent.
What we miss in this reconstruction is Nicholas Georgiadis’s apparently striking set design, a context for the costumes (Rossella D'Agostino and Tjasha Stroud) and dance, though The Enchanted Boys (a mix of Ballet Black and Scottish Ballet) and Anthony Hateley's lighting provide some framework. The plangent music by Federico Mompou, as arranged by John Lanchberry, is enchanting (pianist Jonathan Higgins).
It was the positive reception of Danses Concertantes—his first ballet for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, his first to be designed by Georgiadis, his first set to Stravinsky—that persuaded MacMillan to give up dancing and concentrate on choreography.
An abstract “bustling” ballet, “with hints of jive, revue, cinema and the circus”, one reads of “hectic colours”, but the short duet danced by RB’s Akane Takada and BB’s José Alves in turquoise and black, with odd golden-tipped Pickelhaube on their heads, is a frustrating morsel, a piquant amuse-bouche, the recorded music distant.
Spiky fingers pointing to all points of the compass, legs sharp and crisp, but one has to take Clement Crisp’s account on trust: “I still recall how the eye was teased by the sparks of energy and wild originality given off by the movement, how the Georgiadis designs glowed and flashed, how bright-footed the young cast seemed. Why had no-one ever used fingers like this before? Or turned staid ideas on their heads, and made partnering witty? Danses was a declaration of talent, of the arrival of the new heir.”
Laiderette (the ugly one) is a dance drama that evokes circus and masquerade: masks and magic, wealth and poverty, neo-realism and surrealism. A Mask-seller (Ricardo Cervera) peddles his wares with the aid of his gramophone; sad bedraggled clowns, droopy Petrushkas, wander the streets; a couple tattered and torn abandon a masked girl (Francesca Hayward), Laiderette, on a doorstep.
A masked ball is taking place. Laiderette is invited in. Initially her dancing is tentative, how can it be as joyful as that of the rich prancing guests... Mysterious, fragile, her introspective solo is newly discovered expression. Arms clasped behind her back, she struggles against her nature, but how she loves to dance. The magical music (Petite Symphonie Concertante by Frank Martin) drives her—a hint of Red Shoes…
The Host (Soares) falls for her—until the moment of unmasking. She proves to be a damaged bird, a plucked little chick, her hair a wig (impossible to see Hayward as ugly even in a bald cap). Anything is better than deformed reality—how they recoil. Cinéma vérité, Fellini’s Gelsomina from La Strada, Buñuel, Cocteau, even Chaplin and Massine, cross my mind in this fantasque and fantastique tale.
Sketches from a life, the themes—trapped birds / young girls in trouble, rejection and flight—that would surface in his later larger works already in place: an early strong sense of theatre and story is self-evident. So much of MacMillan’s archive begs to be given space to breathe.
But, one doesn't get much closer to Royal Ballet dancers of the calibre of Cuthbertson, Hayward, Takada and Soares, not to mention Ichikawa, Alves, Cira Robinson and more from Ballet Black and Scottish Ballet, than in the compact 164-seater Pit studio space, close enough to see the sweat fly.
Reviewer: Vera Liber