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Review, 5-6: Royal Remembrance
From the Toxic to the Fun to the Sad, MacMillan Feted
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2003 Josephine Leask
LONDON -- As part of
the international celebration of Kenneth MacMillan, the Royal Ballet
last Wednesday presented an evening of the choreographer's work
with two 'safe' pieces, "Danses Concertantes" (1955) and "Gloria"
(1980) sandwiching the toxic "Judas Tree" (1992). As principal choreographer
with the Royal Ballet from 1977 - 92, the year in which he died,
MacMillan was determined to make ballets which were relevant to
his generation. While he was heavily criticized initially for departing
from pretty-pretty fairy-tale illusion, he soon became praised for
being a risk taking, bold choreographer who delved into areas where
other choreographers feared to tread. He became famous for work
which explored disturbed psyches and dysfunctional relationships,
as illustrated by "The Judas Tree," or ballets which were based
on historical narratives which illustrated the turbulence and breakdowns
inevitable in the human condition. For such themes he developed
choreography that conveyed strong, black, raw and realistic emotion
and brought an expressionist streak to ballet, with characters that
often looked grotesque and who performed abusive acts on one another.
"The Judas Tree," one
of MacMillan's last ballets, is about nothing else apart from the
interaction between depraved people and includes portrayals of jealousy,
betrayal, violence and hatred. The complex and dramatic music score
by Brian Elias, who was commissioned to write it before the actual
choreography was made, inspired what happens in the dance and sets
the dramatic pace. A group of car mechanics assemble in a shabby
garage, brilliantly portrayed by the set design consisting of scaffolding,
bashed up cars, lurid red lights in the sky and the looming tower
of Canary Wharf in the background. Canary Wharf is London's version
of the former World Trade Center situated in London's impoverished
East end. It is a symbol of both new wealth and improvement towering
above a still predominantly deprived area.
The mechanics strut around,
a bit like in the musical "Greased Lightening," but then the tone
spirals rapidly downwards into heavier waters when a woman is carried
on wrapped in a white sheet. She emerges, danced by Mara Galeazzi
in an extraordinary skimpy leotard which is supposed to resemble
the contemporary dress of a slut, a working class girl whose legs
are open to everybody. She pushes the men around, including her
main man, the Foreman (on Wednesday, Irek Mukhamedov) and flirts
with his friend (Edward Watson). Then, predictably, the Foreman's
pride is hurt, he turns nasty and gathers his henchmen together
to gang rape his girl and murder his friend. Finally he climbs up
on the scaffolding and hangs himself on a final destructive impulse.
This depiction of repulsive
human behavior pushes ballet to its gestural limits and is brilliantly
executed by the dancers --the fight scenes, the rape scene, the
murder scene are all graphic and unbearable to watch. It is possibly
one of the most politically incorrect dance works that I've seen
in terms of its portrayal of both women and class. Working class
people are depicted as demented beasts and the woman is made invisible
at the whim of the men by being covered in a white sheet, then when
she appears has to behave like a cock-teaser for which she is later
viciously punished and killed. X-rated dance but a ballet choreographer
of MacMillan's status gets away with it.
MacMillan is also (in)famous
for his partner work in which the female dancer is often tossed
around like an inflatable doll at a rugby match, and grips on to
different parts of the male dancer with her thighs, when they are
not spread wide open. In fact, much of the man-handling of female
partners in MacMillan ballets resembles a rape scene, which is why
female dancers tackling his roles have to be physically and emotionally
tough. Galeazzi is no exception and Mukhamedov is no newcomer to
his role as macho villain, dancing it with a seasoned brutal authority.
The opening "Danses
Contertantes," one of MacMillan's first ballets made before his
mind became preoccupied with obsessive and depraved themes, is a
favorite with audiences. Its choreography is sharp, spiky and symmetrical,
its costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis -- unitards for men and tunics
for women -- are unusual and chic and the stage design surreal and
magical. Gestural themes appear and reappear, such as wrists turned
out in flexed position, fingers curled like spectacles round the
eyes, head twitches and tilts and jaunty walks on flat foot to pointe.
Laura Morera performs her part with a spot on quirkiness. The overall
effect is visually painterly and fun, although the dancers look
more like puppets than sophisticated members of elite society.
Francis Poulenc's choral
work "Gloria," sung by solo soprano Sally Matthews and members of
the Royal Opera Chorus steals the limelight in the finishing work
of this triple bill. It is a moving, beautiful choral work and makes
a much more emotional impact than the choreography which, to put
it bluntly, is a little dull. Few choreographers have made dance
that responds to the horrors of war (for good reasons), and "Gloria"
is an attempt to remember those who lost their lives in the carnage
of World War I. Trench life is depicted in costume by brown-grey
bloodstained leotards and helmets for the men and silvery angel-like
colors for the women. The work contains more gentle choreography
than in some of MacMillan's other ballets, with most of the drama
happening in the highly physical partner work. While not impact
making, "Gloria" nevertheless conveys a feeling of sadness and futility,
especially when a single male dancer left on stage at the end pauses,
staggers slowly upstage, then jumps off the set.
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