Royal Opera House prepares for Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration

Royal Opera House prepares for Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration

Lady Deborah MacMillan and Scottish Ballet's Christopher Hampson discuss the legacy of one of the ROH's greatest artistic directors and choreographers

He was, according to those close to him, a man of few words. Talking about his feelings came far from naturally to Sir Kenneth MacMillan, but on-stage he spoke volumes.

And 25 years after the Dunfermline-born choreographer died of a heart attack backstage at the Royal Opera House, his voice is still being heard loud and clear. During his career, this most prolific of dance makers created ten full-length ballets and over 50 shorter pieces, which are still regularly performed by ballet companies around the world.

A difficult childhood saw MacMillan's mother die when he was just 13, leaving him with a father who was mentally and physically wounded in World War I. It was to have a lasting impact, but gave him a drive to put real lives and real emotions on stage. It's this quality that appeals to both those watching, and those performing, his work.

'I think Kenneth speaks very clearly to audiences through his choreography,' says Lady Deborah MacMillan of her late husband. 'And he deals with subject matters that most people can relate to. Dancers relish the chance to interpret the roles in his three-act narrative works, as well as in the choreography of his purely abstract one-act ballets.'

As official custodian of her husband's works, Lady MacMillan ensures that his choreography lives on as he intended. The pair were together from the early 1970s until his death in 1992, during which time Kenneth's tenure as director of the Royal Ballet was not without its challenges (his forward-thinking approach didn't always sit well with the more conformist Board).

As such, Lady MacMillan is acutely aware of what Kenneth would, or wouldn't, have liked done with his creations. And, as a visual artist, her input and opinion is as important now as it was to him when he was alive.

'I decide which companies can perform his work,' explains Lady MacMillan, 'but as I'm not a dancer, these decisions are only made after discussion with the notators and coaches who produce the ballets for me. They're all highly professional and sometimes they do themselves out of a job, if they think a dance company isn't ready to perform a work that has been requested by its artistic director. As my training is in the visual arts, I get more involved with the production and the stage picture itself.'

That involvement has been heightened this year, the 25th anniversary of Kenneth's death. At the heart of which is Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration, five performances at the Royal Opera House featuring dance companies from across the UK. And heading to London this October, to perform at the Convent Garden venue for the first time in its history, is Scottish Ballet.

Royal Opera House prepares for Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration

Scottish Ballet performance of Elite Syncopations
The company's artistic director, Christopher Hampson was a 9-year-old boy when he first encountered Kenneth MacMillan, touring with the Royal Ballet as a tiny torch bearer in Romeo and Juliet. Then, at the Royal Ballet School, Hampson worked with MacMillan directly, and vividly recalls what it was like having this revered choreographer in the rehearsal studio.

'I was a student when I worked with Kenneth, so I was incredibly in awe of him,' says Hampson. 'But he actually seemed very quiet and humble, and at that stage he'd had a heart attack so had been told to take it easy. But his stare was very penetrating – he'd sit there with his chin down, eyes up, and just stare at you – which I found quite intimidating, but then I was only young.'

Hampson remembers that Kenneth was 'always talked about as a disruptor – in a good way' and, like Lady MacMillan, cites Kenneth's ability to dig deep into a character's emotional world as one of the keys to his success.

'I think one of the main things about Kenneth's work is his theatricality,' says Hampson. 'And the fact that he wanted to tackle real stories with real people in them. So even when he was telling the story of an Austrian royal family, he dealt with it on a very real level. Kenneth didn't shy away from raw human emotions, and I think that's why his work is so compelling.'

For the National Celebration, Scottish Ballet will be performing MacMillan's 1960 work, Le Baiser de la fée (or 'The Fairy's Kiss') which, according to Lady MacMillan, her husband 'always had a soft spot for, as it was his first really classical ballet'. The piece will form part of a triple-bill alongside Concerto, performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Elite Syncopations, performed by dancers from The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet, all on stage together for the first time.

'The National Celebration was the brain child of [Royal Ballet director] Kevin O'Hare, but everyone who is involved with the celebration has had an input into the planning and programming,' explains Lady MacMillan. 'Kenneth made over 60 ballets during his working career, and I think the variety of works proposed for the Celebration goes a long way to showing the range of his talent, the subject matter and the music that fascinated him.

'I think Kenneth might be surprised that 25 years on there is still such an appetite for his work – but I know he would be absolutely thrilled that this celebration is taking place.'

Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration, Royal Opera House, London, Oct (dates vary).

Scottish Ballet: Stravinsky

Two contrasting works set to the music of Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss by Kenneth MacMillan and Christopher Hampson's The Rite of Spring.

Concerto/Le Baiser De La Fee/Elite Syncopations

Dancers from the UK’s five leading ballet companies perform two of MacMillan’s sunniest works alongside a new production of his dark, classical fairytale. Birmingham Royal Ballet performs Concerto, Scottish Ballet performs Le Baiser de la fée and Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, The Royal…