With all the new works put on by The Royal Ballet this year, we haven’t seen as much of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography as usual. This triple bill of mid-century works is an in-your-face reminder of what an omission that is: Concerto, Las Hermanas and Requiem show MacMillan at his versatile best, and The Royal Ballet are on top form to match.
Concerto was created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in 1963, during MacMillan’s brief stint as their director. That it was a great success at the time and continues to be revived frequently is no wonder – it is 25 minutes of pure delight, a bright, bold plotless ballet set to very listenable Shostakovich and showcasing MacMillan’s playful approach to ballet’s most classical vocabulary. In the quicker first and third movements we see arabesques, posé turns, grand jetés and tour jetés strung together in neat sequences as if the dancers were doing their daily class in the studio, while in the second movement Sarah Lamb treats her partner Ryoichi Hirano as a barre in an exquisite pas de deux built up from the simplest practice-room port de bras. Lamb is a joy to watch, as are Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae in the quicker movements, moving in sync with enchanting precision, elevation, brio and smiles. As often with MacMillan, the supporting dancers’ choreography is just as interesting as the soloists’, and the mass of dancers in bright yellow in the last movement even turn their back on the five principals (Itziar Mendizabal has the demanding fast solo at the beginning of the third movement) and get on with their own thing in another nod to rehearsal dynamics. There are a few wobbles in synchronisation – and landings – among the corps de ballet, which are unfortunately obvious in a piece so unforgivingly dependent on precise synchronisation for effect, but they were a small distraction in an otherwise sparkling half-hour.
Las Hermanas is in a completely different vein: an Expressionist ballet based on Lorca’s play La Casa de Bernarda Alba, the story of five sisters kept indoors by their repressive mother. In MacMillan’s retelling it is darkly captivating, using a striking movement vocabulary that conveys the intensity of the sisters’ emotions. The Eldest Sister, repressed and fearful, is danced with gut-wrenching harshness by Zenaida Yanowsky: her loveless pas de deux with The Man (Thiago Soares) is chilling in its controlled brutality. Soares summons up the requisite sullen viciousness (and displays his hulking shoulders) in a wife-beater vest, managing to look disdainful even of the eager Youngest Sister, who is played by Melissa Hamilton with attractive girlishness. The other sisters, particularly Laura Morera’s Jealous Sister who is driven to betrayal by unbearable circumstances, are excellent too, but it’s Yanowsky’s tightly hunched, angular misery which leaves the strongest impression. Las Hermanas is a powerful reminder that ballet can do darkness and strong emotion as well as any other art form: indeed, MacMillan’s Expressionism in movement was so compelling that I would happily have watched far more than the 26 minutes this tight family psychodrama lasted.
Requiem was MacMillan’s memorial for his close friend and colleague John Cranko, and it carries the emotional resonance of genuine mourning, now not just for Cranko but for MacMillan himself, who died 20 years ago. Fauré’s Requiem was considered unsuitable for ballet by the Royal Opera House board when MacMillan initially pitched the idea to them, but in fact it works superbly: MacMillan’s choreography brings out the unsettling quality of the Fauré, giving the familiar music new power to unsettle and move. The choreography is mostly abstract: different soloists – Carlos Acosta, Marianela Núñez, Leanne Benjamin – or combinations of soloists embody different moods, sometimes supported by the corps de ballet, whose unusual, angular positions contrast with the dramatically expressive solos and keep everything the right side of sentimentality.
One vision of the afterlife is suggested throughout by the “flying” lifts, where tiny, ethereal Leanne Benjamin and other female dancers are carried across the stage in serene attitudes of benediction like Italian Baroque angels, but there is also the tortured earthiness of Carlos Acosta in the Offertory, the poignant humanity of Marianela Núñez and the cool tangle of limbs in the stunning Libera Me, during which Ricardo Cervera and Rupert Pennefather are lifted by the other male dancers, gliding and diving like souls in one of the rivers of Hades. In the last movement, In Paradisum, a sense of paradise is finally evoked by stillness, as all the dancers stand reverently around a gradually intensifying white light, into which they disappear one by one. Requiem is serious, beautiful, elevating; and in The Royal Ballet’s solemn, elegiac performance on Saturday a fitting memorial to MacMillan himself, a truly great choreographer.