Names of the World Ballet Schools: Kenneth MacMillan

Names of the World Ballet Schools: Kenneth MacMillan

He started as a dancer and later created more than 40 ballets. Kenneth MacMillan was a master of reality and multi-act plot performances for the Covent Garden Theatre in London.

A talent found its way to the stage

Kenneth MacMillan was born in Scotland in 1929. His father was an ordinary worker, and one could hardly imagine that the boy would show interest in art. But when he was still in school, he came across a ballet magazine. This was enough for Kenneth to find himself in his first classical dance class soon. 

At the age of 15, he entered Sadler's Wells, now known as the Royal Ballet School. The young man passed a competitive audition - his talent was noticed. Next year, in 1946, he joined the ballet company of the school. At the same time, MacMillan met Ninette de Valois, a ballerina and choreographer. There is a legend that he forged a letter from his father requesting Valois to assess the young man’s capabilities. Whether this was true or not, the ballerina supported the young dancer on his way. 

Student Kenneth MacMillan appeared in The Sleeping Beauty in 1946. This was a premiere performance of the Covent Garden Theatre, recently reopened after the war. After this production, the young dancer was noticed by choreographer Frederick Ashton. Another role was not long in coming: MacMillan got a leading role in the ballet Valses nobles et sentimentales.

In the 1950s, Kenneth MacMillan changed the artistic vector of his work. At that time, he began to stage ballet performances more often than to dance in them. MacMillan admitted that he liked the new vocation much more: dancing in front of the audience, he couldn’t overcome his shyness.

“I turned to choreography as a release from dancing and I was lucky enough that the first thing I did everyone liked."

 His first choreographic endeavors did receive critical acclaim. In 1953, MacMillan choreographed the ballet Somnambulism with a jazz musical basis. Two years later, it was followed by Danses concertantes to the music by Igor Stravinsky.

The most notable premiere of this period was the full-length ballet Romeo and Juliet to Sergei Prokofiev’s score. In the 1965 production, the main roles were performed by ballet stars Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

MacMillan chose reality as his creative method. He liked strong personalities, their strong emotions - and this is what he wanted to show the audience. In the early 1990s, he said in an interview with Clement Crisp, a British dance critic: 

“I knew that what I wanted to put on stage had to have more reality than much of what I was seeing in the 1940s and 1950s. Ballet looked like window-dressing. I wanted to make ballets in which an audience would become caught up with the fate of the characters.”

Choreographer in charge of leading European ballet companies

In the second half of the 1960s, Kenneth MacMillan's voluminous choreographic portfolio allowed him to become artistic director of Ballet Berlin, where he worked from 1966 to 1969. The striking premiere of that period was the ballet Anastasia: at first, it had one act, later (already in London) it was expanded to three acts. The image of the main character was inspired by the story of the factory worker Anna Anderson, who purported to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II, and was full of realistic details of the period. At the same time, the choreographer gave the audience a right to decide for themselves whether the girl was the Grand Duchess or not. 

The job in Berlin was soon followed by another appointment: in 1970, the choreographer became the head of the Royal Ballet of the UK. Seven years later, he resigned from the post of director, but continued to stage productions as the principal choreographer of the theater. For this company he staged original and classical performances, edited his own productions, which he had previously choreographed for other companies. MacMillan's name is associated with the golden age in the life of the Royal Theatre in England. 

One of the examples of the choreographer’s later work was the ballet Manon, based on The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, a novel by Antoine François Prévost. The Royal Theatre had already had an opera of the same name by Giacomo Puccini. The choreographer decided to use the musical material by the French composer Jules Massenet, who wrote the opera score. The ballet premiered in London in 1974. The audience liked the performance, the critics’ reviews were not that unanimous, but everyone praised MacMillan's choreography. In response to the comments, the choreographer decided to make the action more dynamic and later shortened the third act.

 The period when MacMillan headed the Royal Ballet also includes his neoclassical production of Mayerling to the music by Franz Liszt. The plot of the ballet was based on the story of the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf. Mayerling was the name of the hunting lodge that Rudolf, the only son of the Austrian Emperor, bought in 1887. It was the place where a real tragedy happened: in 1889, the corpses of the Crown Prince and his young mistress, whom the Emperor father did not accept, were found within the walls of the castle.

The ballet based on this tragic and mystical plot premiered in 1978 on the Covent Garden stage.

Mayerling proved to be a long-liver: it was restaged by the Royal Theatre more than 10 times.

Surprisingly enough the fate of the choreographer himself turned out to be connected with his creation. In 1992, the production was returned to the Covent Garden stage. Kenneth MacMillan was watching the premiere from the wings, but he was not destined to see the curtain call. The choreographer died backstage from a heart attack at the age of 62. 

The choreographer’s legacy includes more than 40 productions. During his lifetime, MacMillan gained fame as a true master of reality. He loved multi-act ballets and showed himself masterfully in them - this distinguishes him from other outstanding choreographers of the 20th century.

Canadian ballerina Lynn Seymour dedicated the following lines to the choreographer: 

“Kenneth made each dancer an integral part of the creative process, encouraging and stimulating the imagination to the limits, searching the soul for verity, no false airs and graces, no sentimentality, no pasted-on emotions. He wanted raw, gutsy, unattractive humanity out of which true aspects of the human condition could emerge.