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Flash 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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