On several levels, it seems implausible that Northern Ballet has never before performed a work by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. One, because Northern Ballet has carved a particular reputation as a purveyor of ballet with great dramatic capability, exactly the stuff of which MacMillan’s work is made; two, because MacMillan’s craft as a choreographer was honed on producing one-act ballets specifically for the purpose of touring, which is the raison d’être of Northern Ballet; and three, because the late choreographer was very much a man of the North, born in Scotland, brought up in Great Yarmouth and Nottinghamshire, the neighbouring county to Northern Ballet’s home in Yorkshire.   

Javier Torres and Antoinette Brooks Daw in MacMillan's <i>Gloria</i> © Lauren Godfrey
Javier Torres and Antoinette Brooks Daw in MacMillan's Gloria
© Lauren Godfrey

MacMillan’s professional life was almost wholly absorbed in what became The Royal Ballet, joining it as a young dancer, in 1945; and dying backstage at The Royal Opera House, following a heart attack, during the opening night of a revival of his full-length ballet, Mayerling, on 29 October 1992. It is to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of MacMillan’s death that this programme was commissioned and one should pay tribute to the generosity of The Royal Ballet’s Director, Kevin O’Hare, and Lady MacMillan for enabling these works to be transferred to Northern Ballet, not to mention Anthony Dowson and his team (Grant Coyle, Diana Curry and Lynn Wallis) for staging them so well.

While MacMillan lived much of his adult life, until the very last breath, inside the Royal Opera House, he was nonetheless an outsider, often frustrated by the politics of the place; and two of the three works in this programme were made for companies in Germany, where MacMillan sought respite from London’s crushing mix of intrigue and intransigence. Las Hermanas was a commission from his friend, John Cranko (another great choreographer to die young), the director of Stuttgart Ballet, in 1963; and Concerto was created by MacMillan as a joining present to himself and his dancers, on becoming Director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet, Berlin, in 1966. The third, and concluding, work in this programme, Gloria, came much later in MacMillan’s career, being made on The Royal Ballet, in 1980.  

I shall say little about Gloria here, since it was chosen for this programme by Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon, specifically for the honour of performing it at The Royal Opera House, later this month, which I shall review in due course. Suffice to say that this lament of the futile, mass slaughter of the First World War was performed with great authenticity and a tingling sensitivity.

Alexander Yap and Dominique Larose in MacMillan's <i>Concerto</i> © Lauren Godfrey
Alexander Yap and Dominique Larose in MacMillan's Concerto
© Lauren Godfrey
Concerto (MacMillan)

is the antithesis of most MacMillan works, since it deliberately eschews his particular genre of expressionist story-ballets, being an essay in pure dance, performed with permanent smiles. It repeated the choreographer’s earlier success with Symphony (1963) to Shostakovich’s music, expressing allegiance to that earlier work through a similar single-word musical title; and it demonstrated that MacMillan could match any choreographer in his pure classical composition of abstract ballet. It is challenging choreography, especially in terms of synchronising technical virtuosity across a large cast and the Northern Ballet dancers met these tough tests with alacrity. The second movement pas de deux (made by MacMillan to mimic Lynn Seymour’s practice at the barre) was beautifully danced by Dominique Larose and Alexander Yap.   

Las Hermanas (The Sisters) suited both the company and the Alhambra stage very well. When last revived at The Royal Ballet, back in 2012, Nico Georgiadis’s wonderful, evocative, monochronistic recreation of an isolated Andalusian family home seemed lost on the Opera House stage; but it fitted the Alhambra like a glove. One slight oddity was the lack of reference in the programme or elsewhere, to MacMillan – on Georgiadis’s recommendation - basing the ballet on The House of Bernarda Alba, the last play completed by Federico García Lorca, two months before his execution by Franco’s militia, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The narrative similarity is clear although none of Lorca’s characters’ names are used: Las Hermanas was created at the height of the Franco regime’s power and I wonder if that had anything to do with the distancing of the ballet from its source?

Northern Ballet dancers in MacMillan's <i>Las Hermanas</i> © Emma Kauldhar
Northern Ballet dancers in MacMillan's Las Hermanas
© Emma Kauldhar

The expressiveness and passion of Lorca’s narrative is second nature to the Northern Ballet dancers, well used to a rich repertoire of full-length story ballets. The strict mother is played with domineering authority by Victoria Sibson, her power over five daughters symbolised in the cane she uses to enforce their obedience. Dreda Blow essays the anguished elder daughter (unmarried and 39 in Lorca’s play) who has the chance to escape the domineering mother and into marriage with a loathsome, local lothario (Giuliano Contadini); but – it transpires – that he is already, clandestinely, sexually involved with the youngest sister (Minju Kang). Her night-time dalliance with the Man is witnessed by the jealous sister (Sarah Chun) who wears a green dress (symbolising “green with envy”, no doubt) and her whistle-blowing on the affair leads to tragic consequences. The recent Royal Ballet characterisations, notably of Elizabeth McGorian as the Mother and Zenaida Yanowsky as the elder sister, set a very high benchmark; but these Northern Ballet dancers rose to the challenge.

It may have taken a lifetime for MacMillan’s work to come to Northern Ballet but the company wore this borrowed repertoire with considerable style and should take a great deal of pride in their collective achievement

*****