A review by Dancing Times

Photo Lauren Godfrey

The build up to Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, which culminated at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in late October and early November, saw all of the UK's major ballet companies presenting works by the great choreographer in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his death.

Up in Glasgow, Scottish Ballet revived The Fairy's Kiss, a work long absent from the repertoire, and in Manchester English National Ballet staged Song of the Earth.

Birmingham Royal Ballet played a safer hand by presenting the more familiar Concerto and Elite Syncopations alongside David Bintley's 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café. Boldest of all (especially as it had never before performed any works by MacMillan) was Northern Ballet in an excellent triple bill of Concerto, Las Hermanas and Gloria in Bradford.

It was a privilege to be able to attend these nation-wide performances this autumn, and also a reminder of the extraordinarily fertile, theatrical, creative imagination MacMillan had; he truly was a significant figure in the British cultural landscape of the second half of the 20th century…

 
Photo Emma Kauldhar
Concerto. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

 

'Northern Ballet met Concerto's technical challenges head on with brio and energy'

…At the opulent Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, Northern Ballet was taking on ballets by MacMillan for the first time, and they did a tremendous job, especially as artistic director David Nixon had selected works he knew would stretch the company as classical dancers and interpretive artists.

The programme included Concerto, the triple bill's centrepiece, which was staged by Lynn Wallis but this time presented in designs by Deborah MacMillan that set the ballet in a blue room with large windows overlooking the sea, and the dancers dressed in shades of blue. Northern Ballet met Concerto's technical challenges head on with brio and energy, and the dancers looked excited tackling what most probably was the most technically challenging choreography they have performed in some time.

The first movement was led with flair by Sarah Chun and Sean Bates, both of whom were completely on top of the music; in the second Dominique Larose, partnered by Alexander Yap, danced with a curling, rounded flow of movement exactly right for the duet. In the third, it was wonderful to see the company's relish of MacMillan's épaulement and fast footwork.

 
Photo Emma Kauldhar.
Las Hermanas. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

 

'cast aside any thoughts of a mutually supportive sisterhood; these are women at war'

In many ways, the dramatic world of Las Hermanas, which opened the programme, is more familiar territory for a company that concentrates on full-length narrative ballets; staged by Grant Coyle, Northern Ballet had the measure of the work from the off. Danced to Frank Martin's Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, the ballet is a distillation of Federico Garcia Lorca's 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba, in which the five daughters of Bernarda Alba are kept virtual prisoner within the family home until the eldest of them marries. The ballet has a feverish, repressed, hysterical quality that is conveyed in pinched, taut, tight, closed-in movements.

It was astutely described to me during the interval by premier dancer Pippa Moore (who danced in the ballet in an alternate cast) as "like being in an old black and white film, with that creepy music," especially in the context of Nicholas Georgiadis' stark, white courtyard setting and black and grey period costumes.

In Las Hermanas, you can cast aside any thoughts of a mutually supportive sisterhood; these are women at war, and to lose face is to lose your place in the family's pecking order.

Dreda Blow conveyed this sensation brilliantly as the Eldest Sister, a dried-out husk of a woman who is completely humiliated when it is revealed the Youngest Sister (Minju Kang) is having a liaison with her fiancé (the sly Giuliano Contadini). The cast gave a tense, fraught, excellent account of the ballet, which was made all the more effective through the authoritarian presence of Victoria Sibson's Mother.

 
Photo Lauren Godfrey.
Gloria. Photos Lauren Godfrey.

 

'Heading the cast were Antoinette Brooks-Daw, Javier Torres and Riku Ito, all so perfectly and movingly cast in their roles they caused me to burst into tears.'

Sweeping all before it, however, was Gloria, MacMillan's heart-breaking lament to the dead of World War I danced to music by Poulenc. As staged by Diana Curry and Antony Dowson, the ballet was even more powerful at the Bradford Alhambra than it had been when I last saw it performed by The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. This was probably due to the fact that the Alhambra's smaller stage helped intensify the raw, gut-wrenching emotions of grief and loss implicit in MacMillan's beautiful, sculptural choreography.

Heading the cast were Antoinette Brooks-Daw, Javier Torres and Riku Ito, all so perfectly and movingly cast in their roles they caused me to burst into tears. I can think of no higher praise to offer them and their fellow cast members.

This marvellous triple bill, produced for the company by Antony Dowson, will be performed again by Northern Ballet next March at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. I recommend you book your tickets now.

 

Jonathan Gray was writing for the November 2017 edition of Dancing Times. Read the full magazine and subscribe to future editions here.