The Royal Ballet 2000

January 18, 2000

From Gloria , choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
 Photo by Leslie E. Spatt

The MacMillan Inheritance

The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

London, England, U.K.

January 18, 2000

Reviewed by Margaret Willis

Now established in its refurbished home at the Royal Opera House-albeit with still too many technical problems such as cancelled performances when stage equipment failed, and workmen still hammering and drilling backstage-the Royal Ballet launched the first of this season’s tributes to the two great balletic architects who did the most to shape and mold its history and style: Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton.

MacMillan’s work was honored first with a triple bill that included the chirpy Concerto, Rituals (not seen since 1977) and the moving war epic, Gloria.

MacMillan, a founding member of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet (the infant Royal Ballet), created his first work for the company in 1955 and choreographed prolifically until his death in 1992. MacMillan pushed the boundaries of the classical ballet farther than any other British choreographer, often choosing topics considered taboo for the stage and beyond audience expectations of traditional prettiness and happy endings. One of his last works, The Judas Tree, told of dockland warfare and gang rape.

However, this triple-bill celebration was not out to shock or offend. In fact, the pieces chosen were unexpectedly tame, general crowd pleasers with a touch of sadness thrown in at the end.

The program opened with Concerto,originally created in 1966 for Deutsche Oper Ballett when MacMillan was director of ballet in Berlin and first performed by the Royal Ballet in 1980. A plotless, pure dance work, it surprises today as a MacMillan piece for its very sunniness-such a sharp contrast to his later, darker productions. The costumes here are bright orange, buttercup yellow and ochre, and the dancers all wear smiles. Performed to the wonderfully evocative and romantic music of Shostakovich’s Concerto no. 2 for Piano, the ballet reminds us of a summer day when spirits are high and exuberant.

Nothing could have been more different from the next ballet, Rituals,performed to Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Created after the company’s visit to Japan in 1975, it shows three different aspects of that country’s culture as seen through a Westerner’s eyes.

As the clicking bamboo-pole curtain is slowly pushed aside, the scene opens on the preparations for a martial arts display where politeness and honor reign. The slow, ceremonial movements suited the dancers’ balance and control, though the pointed feet looked out of place. Most challenging was to imagine them, with their spare bodies and taut buttocks, as huge Sumo wrestlers.

The second scene was inspired by a visit to the Banraku Puppet Theatre. Here, hooded and veiled puppeteers handled every movement of two puppets, played by Chloe Davies and Bruce Sansom. Interminable interweavings, which seemed to turn the dancers almost inside out, told a story of either great love or murder. Then as suddenly as it had started, the two puppets were returned to their upright positions and reclothed in ceremonial dress. The final episode was titled “Celebration and Prayer,” and recalled scenes from The Mikado. The girls tottered on their heels with mincing steps, their heads bent to the side, and their faces blank like Geisha masks, chalk white with bright rosebud-red lips. The roles of the Mother and the Midwife were danced by Gillian Revie and Deborah Bull, respectively, with great force and sensitivity.

The final ballet of the evening, Gloria,illustrated Macmillan’s great understanding of human misery, and his ability to interpret it in dance terms. Performed to Poulenc’s choral work, Gloria, the ballet is based on Vera Brittain’s autobiographical and elegiac Testament of Youth, which tells of the generation lost in battle in World War I. The action takes place in No Man’s Land where an iron frame rises on a slope that leads to the trenches. The war-scarred soldiers in tattered uniforms appear over the hill, crawling and falling down the slope to relive their memories of past joys with the gray and ghostly forms of their womenfolk. Sarah Wildor and Inaki Urlezaga smoothly and gracefully performed their sorrowful   pas de deux, filled with haunting images and despair. Another soldier, Carlos Acosta, catapulted onto the stage as though blown by shell blast, showed his anger and uneasiness in dazzling multiple turns. In the last searing moments, when his comrades had silently climbed the hill to return to the trenches, he took off around the stage in a burst of movement, his final gesture of futility. Then reluctantly he climbed to the top, and as the final amen was sung, he plummeted backward over the edge as though hit by a bullet. A somber, wrenching moment.