Friday, 30 November 2012

Triple bill: Kenneth MacMillan

Royal Opera House, 27 November 2012
Requiem (1976), Richard Cragun. Photo © Leslie E. Spatt. From here.

Three ballets illustrating what can be done with dance, though camp is an unpleasant companion in each, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses.

This tribute to the Royal Ballet's former choreographer comprised Concerto, Las Hermanas and Requiem, the last itself a tribute to choreographer John Cranko.
The pieces were well chosen to show the range of modern choreography. The first was abstract and undramatic, the second dramatic and tragic, the third abstract yet dramatic and poignant.
Concerto, to Shostakovich's second piano concerto, seemed to me the least successful work, though this may have been due to being placed first in the bill. It stressed the delightful aspect of the concerto, with perky ensembles in bright colours, much leaping and prancing and some forced smiles from the straining dancers.
Choosing this concerto in the first place was a great idea, given its relentlessly tuneful nature. But the finale was taken much slower than it would have been in a normal concert, and while this is an understandable concession to dancing, the effect further reduced the presence of intoxicating dionysus in favour of serene apollo.
The piece also highlighted what seems a common problem with dancing to anything other than a minimilist score. There is at least one moment in the slow movement where the emotional involvement deepens, and this wasn't reflected by the dancing.
Emotional intensity was if anything a little overdone in Las Hermanas, a short tale of repression, lust, sibling rivalry and finally suicide. The dancing was extremely expressive, but the result was more hothouse melodrama than proper tragedy. I think this must be because the timeframe was so compressed. We didn't receive a full impression of each of the relevant characters.
A striking aspect of this work is its negative portrayal of men, or at least, the only male character, who is so priapic that at one point he rests on his haunches like a sexually frustrated ape. MacMillan is deft at portraying his obvious appeal to the sisters, but given his one-dimensional sexualised nature, without even courage, so that he runs when threatened by the aged mother, he is a weak point in the drama. Can these women really be so passionate over such a trivial figure?
I don't want to be too negative. If it is a weakness to portray the man as one-dimensional, this at least inverts the usual situation of the one-dimensional sexpot woman.
Requiem is clearly intended to be a Major Statement. Any audience member applauding during the scene changes was shushed by the conductor, ballet veteran Barry Wordsworth.
It's extremely impressive, though the effect on me ranged from mild disgust to sorrow, a range probably not intended by MacMillan, and certainly not by composer Faure, though his mass for the dead normally affects me in this way.
I suspect that having chosen this particular piece of music, there was little chance MacMillan could have effectively subverted its sentimental, candles-and-incense catholicism. He certainly tries, and the result is surprisingly moving, a series of tableaux representing the the masculine and feminine parts of a soul presumably passing into the afterlife, and its effect on the community they leave behind.
Camp was not wholly avoided: pastel lighting, noble expressions and, in particular the shuffling company at the very beginning. But the overall effect was the best interpretation of this music I've experienced.

The distancing, belittling effect of camp seemed close to the surface in each of these pieces, what with the bright prancing of Concerto, the impression of drag-queen hysteria in Las Hermanas, and the pastels of Requiem. On reflection, I don't feel any of these pieces needed a camp element for their efectivenesss, so conclude it is either intrinsic to MacMillan or to the current production of these works.

Performances were exceptional, and it would be unfair to single any out, though I can't resist praising Zenaida Yanowsky in Las Hermanas if only because of her elongated frame and her commitment to exploiting this oddity to the full in her interpretation. Inspired casting and brave acting.

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