A Celebration of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Master Choreographer:
Las Hermanas, Concerto, Gloria
Bradford, Alhambra Theatre
7 (mat) October 2017
The 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death is being marked by the country’s major companies – the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet – by mounting their own productions of his ballets. They will come together at the Royal Opera House later this month, each company performing a one-act ballet in different mixed bills, as well as fielding soloists for Elite Syncopations. The celebration will be the first time most of touring companies appear on the Royal Opera House stage (BRB being the exception).
Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon, chose Gloria as his company’s contribution. He then took on the challenge of mounting three MacMillan one-act ballets for his dancers and audiences: Las Hermanas and Concerto, as well as Gloria. The triple bill opened in Bradford, and will be seen in Leeds next March.
Gloria was Nixon’s first choice because he felt it showed MacMillan at his moving best. It contrasts Poulenc’s choral setting of the Latin text from the mass in praise of God with the toll of human lives in the First World War. In performance at the Opera House, Northern Ballet will have the advantage of the opera singers and orchestra. On tour in smaller theatres, the company has to use a recording of the score. Poulenc’s estate would not permit any reduction in the size of the very large orchestra.
For Gloria, the advantage of a smaller stage is that the audience is closer to the performers, more aware of the pressure of the ghostly corps of mourning women and fallen soldiers. The central figures are never alone. Three main roles are based on those in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth: her brother and fiançé, both killed in the war, and Vera herself, who survived her grief. Antoinette Brooks-Daw, Javier Torres and Riku Ito were excellently committed in the roles, as was Ayami Miyata as the light-hearted girl who is thrown into the wings at the end of the pas de quatre. Northern Ballet will do itself proud when it appears at the Opera House for the first time ever.
The set and costumes for Gloria were borrowed from the Royal Ballet, as were those for Las Hermanas. Nico Georgiadis’s two-storied set for the house of Bernarda Alba, Lorca’s play on which the ballet is based (though the programme omits to mention it) is truly claustrophobic on a relatively narrow stage. Five frustrated sisters are waiting for the eldest to marry so that they, too, can escape their oppressive mother.
MacMillan’s choreography reveals the seething emotions of the sisters as they react to the presence of the macho man chosen by the mother for her eldest. Giuliano Contadini was appropriately crass and arrogant as the fiançé, who lusts after the dowry and the youngest sister (Minju Kang). Dreda Blow embodied the repressed longing and apprehension of the would-be bride; Sarah Chun exposed the conflicts of the jealous sister, regretting the outcome of her actions. Victoria Sibson as the mother needs to find more depth to her characterisation of the dreadful old matriarch.
The 1963 ballet, created originally for Stuttgart Ballet, suits Northern Ballet’s dance-actors well. The music, Frank Martin’s Concerto for Harpsichord and small orchestra, winds up the tension of the work, with Darius Battiwalla resoundingly ominous on the harpsichord.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.2 inspired MacMillan to create an exhilarating (and taxing) neo-classical ballet. He made it in 1966 to test the technique of the dancers of the Deutsche Oper Ballet, the company he had just taken over in West Berlin. Nixon has chosen it for his company for the same reason, asking them to perform choreography outside their repertoire of dramatic ballets.
Since Birmingham Royal Ballet will be performing its well-tried production of Concerto in the ROH MacMillan celebration, Northern Ballet is using Deborah MacMillan’s designs instead of Jurgen Rose’s original ones. The backdrop and costumes in shades of blue were borrowed from the Noriko Kobayashi Ballet Theatre in Japan. On the backcloth, a double picture window looks out onto a watery blue landscape. The pas de deux in the slow movement takes place in moonlight. The production is thus cooler in tone than those with Rose’s sunny designs in yellow and orange.
Northern Ballet’s corps were still too mechanical in their response to the music, played with great enjoyment by the Sinfonia Orchestra’s pianist, Andrew Dunlop. The dancers have to be well-drilled without too obviously following counts. Sean Bates was buoyant as the leading man in the first movement with Sarah Chun as the main woman, her upper body rather too unyielding. The woman in the pas de deux needs luscious curves to her limbs in the role created for Lynn Seymour, and Dominique Larose has them, ably supported by Alexander Yap. These dancers, still in the junior ranks, are being given the chance to prove themselves as soloists.
Thanks to the inclusive MacMillan celebrations, audiences and dancers outside London are able to experience more of his work. It’s noticeable that the companies invited to the Royal Opera House have selected ballets with large numbers of dancers, so that as many as possible in alternate casts can appear on its stage. London audiences look forward to seeing them all.