He is one of the most influential figures in ballet choreography so why, asks Sarah Freeman, is Kenneth MacMillan such a hard sell?
Maybe it’s his name. Sir Kenneth MacMillan has a distinctly old-fashioned ring about it, one that sounds like it should belong to a slightly dusty academic. It doesn’t sound like the name of a dance powerhouse, whose tenure as artistic director of London’s Royal Ballet was both influential and groundbreaking.
Sir Kenneth had much more to give, but on October 29, 1992 he suffered a heart attack and died backstage at the Royal Opera House during a revival of his 1978 ballet Mayerling. Aged just 62, he left an enormous back catalogue that every dance company worth its salt is keen to have a slice of have. It’s why Northern Ballet’s David Nixon was delighted to be given the rights to stage three of Sir Kenneth’s works and why he has been so frustrated that when the triple bill opened in Bradford ticket sales weren’t what he had hoped for.
“Last year we had our main stage debut at the Royal Opera House performing Sir Kenneth’s work and it was a wonderful experience. We have always been confident in the quality of the productions we put on, we know we set the bar high, but it was a chance to take our work to the London critics who often don’t venture north.
“They loved it. We got a clutch of four and five star reviews, but it has proved a harder sell away from Sir Kenneth’s home venue.”
There is obviously a commercial element to Nixon’s disappointment – staging dance is notoriously expensive and no one wants to perform to a half-empty auditorium – but it’s more than just about the figures.
“He is responsible for some of the most fantastic works of ballet that have ever been produced, but when we staged the first show up here just before Christmas I quickly realised that in the outside world his name doesn’t strike the chord that it should,” admits Nixon. “Northern Ballet is known for creative narrative works like Dracula, Jane Eyre and The Three Musketeers and I think people saw a choreographer they didn’t know and the name of three ballets they had never heard of and weren’t prepared to take the risk.
“I can understand that, but I find it such a shame. Being given the green light to put on three of Sir Kenneth’s works is a big coup for us and we now have to work to get the audience it deserves.”
Nixon says he was introduced to Sir Kenneth’s work as a 17-year-old and, while in some quarters there has been a move away from the classicism in which he specialised, Nixon – along with many of his peers – remains a fan.
“Sir Kenneth’s real achievement was putting classical ballet technique on a contemporary stage. It’s not a style of dance that we are Northern Ballet are particularly known for, but it has been really good for us as a company and not something audiences should be frightened or wary of.
“Everyone who saw it in Bradford loved it. When you are sat in the stalls you can feel when a production is working and this really did work.”
The MacMillan triple bill came at the end of one of Northern Ballet’s busiest years – 2017 saw it stage three world premieres and the company will have another chance to switch audiences on to Sir Kenneth, when it brings the same trio of works to Leeds Grand Theatre next month.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about which of his ballets would work together,” says Nixon. “We open with Las Hermanas, which is a tense psychological drama telling the story of five sisters living under the tyrannical rule of their mother and is probably the one which is closest to the kind of work we put on. The second is Concerto, one of Sir Kenneth’s trademark classical showpieces.
“We finish with Gloria which is a deeply moving tribute to the fallen of the First World War. It is the most beautiful dance and impossible to watch without connecting with the emotion of the piece.”
The latter was inspired by Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth, in which she laid bare her wartime experiences and the grief she felt at losing both her fiancé and brother on the battlefields.
The book resonated strongly with MacMillan, whose own father was gassed at the Battle of the Somme, and the piece, which was first performed at the Royal Ballet in 1980, continues to win praise for its depiction of the futility of war. Nixon hopes it shows the breadth – and depth – of the choreographer’s range.
“Performing a programme of his work has been on the top of my wish list for so many years I can’t remember. Partly it was about challenging our dancers and taking them out of their comfort zone, but it was also because I think it is important that we not only show our audiences new work like Casanova, but we also show them how we connect with the wider dance heritage.
“Embracing the work of Sir Kenneth has allowed us to do that and it would be lovely if we could take even more people on that journey with us.”
Northern Ballet’s Las Hermanas/Concerto/Gloria will have three performances at Leeds Grand Theatre from March 16-17. 0844 848 2700, leedsgrandtheatre.com