The Royal Opera House’s retrospective of Kenneth MacMillan’s work – 25 years after his death – has chosen to focus not on the long story ballets for which he was most famous (Mayerling, Romeo and Juliet, Manon) but his shorter one-act pieces. Some are well known, others almost forgotten.
This is certainly true of the first combination that includes Le Baiser de la Fee (The Fairy’s Kiss) from 1960. This is a story ballet, one of MacMillan’s earlier works and rarely seen today. It is very different from his later work and, though it has a good enough plot (based on a Hans Andersen fairy tale), it lacks narrative drive or characters that engage.
This is a Scottish Ballet production – Covent Garden has brought together all the main ballet companies in the UK for this MacMillan tribute and there is a true sense of celebration about this season. Constance Devernay as the Fairy first appears with a glittering precision accompanied by her elves (who look like they’re straight out of Lord of the Rings). She kisses the baby of a dying mother then returns to reclaim him as a young man (Andrew Peasgood) on his wedding day. She lures him away, though she might come to regret it as there follow some clumsy lifts (strange as MacMillan would become famed for his lifts).
The other two pieces in this collection, though, are so much better. That perennial crowd-pleaser, Elite Syncopations (1974), to the music of Scott Joplin has always been a delight, with its liquorice allsorts unitards, the on-stage band, the ambience of slightly down-at-heel dance hall. It is one of MacMillan’s rare forays into dance as light-hearted fun and makes you wish he’d tried it more often. The company looks good and there are some great individual performances from a slinky Precious Adams from English National Ballet, Riku Ito from Northern Ballet and – the one that always brings the house down – a hilarious Alaskan Rag from Marge Hendrick and Constant Vigier, both from Scottish Ballet.
It was actually the first piece of the night, though, that stole my heart. Concerto with the Birmingham Royal Ballet dates back to 1966 and shows MacMillan’s extraordinary ability to make classical technique seem utterly contemporary – all clean lines and precision but with a sense of playfulness. The music is Shostakovitch’s second piano concerto and the soloists in the first movement, Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou, had both charm and a strong, speedy technique. In the slow second movement, Jenna Roberts, supported by Tyrone Singleton, had real musicality and a sublime simplicity – a moment of moving meditation.
The season continues with more triple bills including Concerto, Elite Syncopations, The Judas Tree, Song of the Earth and my all-time favourite MacMillan, Gloria.
For more information and tickets please visit the website.