There is almost nothing quite so special as being a mere few feet from some of the UK’s best ballet dancers performing the revived early works of MacMillan, in a small theatre where you can hear the dancers’ breath, watch their muscles move and see the emotion in their eyes.
This intimate and captivating celebration of Kenneth MacMillan was curated and directed by former Royal Ballet dancer Viviana Durante and performed for just 160 people at the Barbican and live streamed across the world.
Viviana’s vision for the Kenneth MacMillan: Steps Back in Time programme was influenced by her own experience of working with the influential choreographer, choosing work that she has performed and work revived from archives. Viviana brought together dancers from The Royal Ballet, Ballet Black and Scottish Ballet to perform House of Birds, Danses Concertantes and Laiderette.
The evening opened with House of Birds (1955 – originally performed by Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet) is a Grimm Brothers inspired fairytale of a bird witch, who lurers children turning them into birds. This dark tale is wonderfully brought to life by Lauren Cuthbertson and Thiago Soares as the smitten young girl and boy, whose innocent love is marred by the Witch (Sayaka Ichikawa) who snares the girl and transforms her into a feathery flighty bird, who is saved from a life in the trees by her true love.
A familiar story reminiscent of swan lake, that beautifully flows with an elegant pas de deux between Lauren and Thiago, into a heart quelling duo with the Witch who literally capturing the girl with the rope. The magic of MacMillan’s choreography shows in the transformation of the girl to bird. Lauren is divine in her feathers, her movements quicken, her arms sharper, her hands twitch as she expresses her internal struggle with her new found form. As she re-encounters the boy, her fear and shame exudes and being so close you can see the emotion in her eyes as she is loved, accepted and finally freed. An emotional piece accompanied by a live pianist that creates a dark world that MacMillan fills with his inspired choreography.
The second piece Danses Concertantes (1955) presents a sharp and short duet that showcases Akane Takada and José Alves technical prowess. Akane is doll-like, precise and executes each of MacMillan’s movements with his dictated pointed fingers, rigidity and angular shapes. It all happens so swiftly that it almost takes your breath away in their bright blue jazzy costumes, that only enhances Akane and José incredible strength, fluidity and exacting performance.
Laiderette (‘the ugly one’ in French) (1954) ends the evening with a deeply emotional, character led and heartbreaking narrative ballet, that shows MacMillan’s desire to express human experience of rejection. Francesca Hayward’s delivery of MacMillan’s choreography and portrayal of his Laiderette, really does cut to the core.
The story tells of a young woman who is part of a down-trodden clown troupe, who is abandoned and found by a gentleman (Thiago Soares) – and after falling in love, she is unmasked and her ugliness revealed for all to see. But within the ugliness of the torn and blackened costumes, the slightly disheveled tutus and the worn Pierrot-like leotard of Liaderette, MacMillan delivers beauty in the arrangements, joy in the ball scene and deep connection in the Francesca and Thiago’s duet. The finale sees Francesca deliver a heart wrenching display, her acting skills coming to the fore as Laiderette’s wig is ripped from her head and she collapses to the floor and with it you could almost shed a tear.
After a fast paced insight into MacMillan’s early work that beautifully brought together the dancers from the three companies (love seeing Cira Robinson performing MacMillan), it was the talk after the show with Lady MacMillan, Francesca Hayward, Thiago Soares and Viviana Durante that gave added depth to the evening. Viviana shared her own experience of working with the genius who Lady MacMillan referred to as a “slave driver” in the studio. The dancers expressed their enjoyment and gratitude for being able to perform the work and bring MacMillan’s characters to life.
Reviewed at Barbican, 18 April 2018.