Kenneth MacMillan was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1929 and spent much of his youth in Great Yarmouth and Retford where he was evacuated during World War II. He attended dance lessons and discovered ballet at age 14. At age 15 he forged a letter from his father to Ninette de Valois requesting an audition for Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later The Royal Ballet School) where he was awarded a full scholarship.
MacMillan became a founder member of De Valois’ Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet before graduating to its senior company Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet) in 1948. As a young dancer he performed in works by Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine but, plagued by terrible stage fright, he soon discovered an aptitude for choreography.
He choreographed Somnambulism, Fragment, Punch and the Child and Laiderette between 1953-54, before receiving his first professional commission from de Valois in 1955, for whom he created Danses Concertantes, beginning his journey to becoming one of the world’s leading choreographers.
In 1965 MacMillan created his first full-length ballet Romeo and Juliet which was created on Royal Ballet dancers Lynn Seymour and (former Artistic Director of Northern Ballet) Christopher Gable who were to become two of his most significant muses.
By 1966 MacMillan had created over 30 works, mainly on The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and in Europe. He was then invited to become Director of Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin where he stayed until 1969, returning to take over the directorship of The Royal Ballet from Frederick Ashton in 1970. He resigned from this position in 1977 but remained as Principal Choreographer at The Royal Ballet until his death, where he continued to create some of the Company’s best-loved works including Manon and Mayerling, and earning a knighthood for services to British ballet in 1983. During this time he was also appointed Associate Director of American Ballet Theatre, a position he held from 1984-1989.
On 29 October 1992, aged 62, MacMillan suffered a heart attack and died backstage at The Royal Opera House during a performance of Mayerling. His last creation was The Judas Tree which had premièred at The Royal Opera House earlier that year.
Over the course of his career, MacMillan created over 60 varied works, many of which remain in the repertoires of leading ballet companies across the globe and continue to surprise, move, delight and shock audiences 25 years after his death.