Gloria has such an emotional impact that I much prefer it to end an evening of ballet. It is difficult to think of aught else in the aftermath of its performance; but, here, it is followed by the dissonance of plunging headlong into the psychological expressionism of The Judas Tree with its stark representation of violent death in a bleak Tower Hamlets' scrapyard; this, then, to be followed by the froth and whimsy of Elite Syncopations. It’s a triple bill that clearly shows the breadth of MacMillan’s immense range; but, also, one that clangs with disharmony.

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

Poulenc’s serene, soulful setting of the Eucharistic Gloria gives the eponymous ballet an unsettling gentleness, in stark contrast to the grisly, ghastly reality of agonising death between mud-filled trenches. This counterpoint between the music’s peacefulness and the violence of the subject-matter provides the work’s powerful emotional generator. Northern Ballet’s first performance, in Bradford, a few weeks’ ago, was to a recorded score. Add the live impact of the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, plus the heartrending voice of soprano Sarah-Jane Lewis, and the result was mesmeric. I was enchanted in the anaesthetic stupor wrought by this cocktail of beautiful music, conspicuous design and enigmatic performance.

As on previous occasions, MacMillan entrusted the work's design to an artist from the Slade School, choosing a young graduate sculptor, Andy Klunder; and his faith in youth (appropriate, since he based the work on Vera Brittan’s autobiographical Testament of Youth) was handsomely rewarded. Klunder’s designs are timeless evocations of that terrible conflict. Men wear representations of steel helmets and one-piece khaki/grey leotards that seem to be splattered with mud and stained in blood. The women appear like battlefield phantoms with floating skirts; diaphanous, silvery costumes; their hair hidden under tight-fitting, skull-caps. The ochre colour, sloping set and mangled metal skeletons conjure the imagery of an artillery-battered, trench-filled landscape. 

David Nixon – artistic director of Northern Ballet – has shown inspirational leadership by choosing Gloria for the company’s debut on the Royal Opera House main stage; and by selecting two casts, thereby ensuring that his entire company shared this unique experience.  This cast did Nixon proud, in a beautifully danced and highly sensitive performance. Javier Torres, Kevin Poeng, Matthew Koon and Antoinette Brooks-Daw were stand-out members of an excellent ensemble. The arresting, lyrical pas de deux to the dramatic Domine Deus soprano solo was as elegantly and assuredly danced as I have seen.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in <i>The Judas Tree</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2017
Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Judas Tree
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2017

As always, these few performances of The Judas Tree (by The Royal Ballet) have provoked controversy amongst critics and audiences alike. It has been described, respectively, as ‘vile’ and ‘abhorent’ by two critics for whom I yield to no-one in my unbounded respect; but, for me, it is a stirring production, crammed full of MacMillan’s unique mix of psychological expressionism, allegory (here, related to the life of Christ) and contemporary influence (inspired by the Tiananmen Square insurrection). The fact that 25 years’ after both its creation, and its creator’s death, The Judas Tree continues to challenge and polarise audiences is testament to a great work.

Bennet Gartside captures the complexities of the Judas figure, named as the Foreman; his anger, jealousy, desire (for both the Mary and Jesus figures) belying a sensitivity that leads to his guilt-wracked suicide. Melissa Hamilton, likewise, captures both the Madonna and Magdalene sides of the only female character: both seductress and victim; defiant, provocative, self-aware and submissive. The doomed figure of “Jesus” and the helpless observer/denier “Peter” (billed as friends of the Foreman) were also well defined by Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson, respectively.   

And so, to conclude with the slapstick, ragtime, nightclub represented by the twelve numbers in Elite Syncopations, again – as in Programme 1 – danced by a unique mix of four of the five major UK ballet companies sharing this open house celebration. Stand-out performances came from Laura Morera in a slinky, sexy Calliope Rag, the heat of her performance adding to the nightclub steam; and Akane Takada, as the girl who courts many suitors in Scott Joplin’s Stop Time Rag; and then returns with dance floor dandy, Nicol Edmonds, in the Bethena Waltz.

Itziar Mendizabal in <i>Elite Syncopations</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017
Itziar Mendizabal in Elite Syncopations
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017
Scottish Ballet’s Marge Hendrick and Constant Vigier reprised the comedic tall girl/short guy pantomime in the Alaskan Rag to great effect; and Northern Ballet’s Kevin Poeng danced the concluding Friday Night solo with suitable gusto. 

This is a well-structured set of dances that maintains a jaunty momentum and Ian Spurling’s crazy, multi-coloured, lycra unitards with their motifs of stars, stripes, button and bows, whilst having nothing whatsoever to do with the era of ragtime, certainly add a sensual slinkiness to proceedings.    

It may have been an incongruous (perhaps, even insubstantial) finale in the context of the meaningful intent of Gloria and The Judas Tree, but it was nonetheless a pleasing end to a remarkable nationwide celebration. In the month of October, I’ve seen 22 performances of nine one-act MacMillan ballets and it has been a fine-dining gluttony of dance drama. MacMillan’s legacy demands that this festival be remounted on a regular basis. It is certainly justified by more than enough great repertoire.