Like many great ideas, this was very simple; and, yet, it must have been a challenge to implement. To celebrate the choreographic genius of Sir Kenneth MacMillan and honour the twenty-fifth anniversary of his passing, the director of The Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, had his eureka moment when deciding to share this festival with the UK’s other large-scale ballet companies. Birmingham Royal Ballet already had significant cause to mark the anniversary, since much of MacMillan’s early work was created on their forerunner, Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, and BRB has a significant MacMillan repertoire. The “Royal” companies were joined in the enterprise by English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet. Since MacMillan was born in Dunfermline, brought up in Great Yarmouth and created most of his work in London, this nationwide co-operation was so appropriate.

The two-week festival is split into three programmes, the first of which was prefaced by a delicious amuse-bouche in the presentation of Jeux for a small and fortunate audience in the Clore Studio Upstairs at The Royal Opera House. MacMillan’s link to this work, made by Nijinsky,  in 1913, for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was his commission to reimagine fragments of choreography for Herbert Ross’s film, Nijinsky (1980). These, of course, are preserved on celluloid for all to see but Nijinsky’s original ballet is long-lost. Towards the end of his tenure as artistic director at ENB, Wayne Eagling (much associated with the work of MacMillan, as a dancer) built upon these cinematic fragments to reimagine Jeux, in the year before its centenary, and his new-old interpretation, which doubles the number of dancers used by Nijinsky, has transferred to The Royal Ballet for the purposes of opening this celebration.  

A pair of wooden tennis raquets and a bouncing ball set the scene for a brief ballet about games, the dancing given an emphatic start by Vadim Muntagirov’s powerful double tour en l’air (so liquidly smooth it seemed like a triple); a particularly ironic beginning since MacMillan’s early choreography eschewed such virtuosity (it wasn’t until Le Baiser de la fée, in 1960, that he employed tours en l’air, as a vehicle for Donald MacLeary’s skills). Eagling takes Nijinsky’s choreographic essay on young adults playing childish games with a subtle, sexual overtone and turns the focus onto the power and vulnerability of an artist (Muntagirov). A trio of women (Yasmine Naghdi, Isabella Gasparini and Leticia Stock) lend charming support, dressed in period costume, evoking the photographic records of the original Jeux,  and Muntagirov is joined in the tennis by David Donnelly and Teó Dubreuil. This vintage slice of restored ballet history is topped off by a new cameo of the imagined figure of Diaghilev himself, portrayed by Philip Mosley; perhaps arriving to warn his beloved Nijinsky not to injure himself in these risky pursuits. Jeux was a cosy and intimate curtain-raiser to the main event.

Birmingham Royal Ballet took centre stage to open the festival proper with a charming and effervescent performance of Concerto, made in November 1966 for the Berlin Opera Ballet, to mark the beginning of MacMillan’s three-year tenure as director. Created on Shostakovitch’s second piano concerto, it is one of the choreographer’s finest abstract works, standing alongside the best of Ashton and Balanchine. It’s a busy ballet full of demanding technical challenges in three movements that require solos and duets from several dancers, as well as a small, supportive corps. The BRB dancers were as sparkling as their colourful costumes, with Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton excellent in the central adagio; as was Delia Matthews in her long solo to open the third movement, which reintroduced a prominent, stately couple (Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou) for a second, challenging pas de deux that led into a fiesty, fluid finale for the whole ensemble.

I have a crisis of conscience insofar as Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) is concerned. It is the earliest MacMillan choreography to feature in this festival (it was his thirteenth completed work); and it uses Stravinsky’s most melliflous ballet score, composed as a heartfelt tribute to Tchaikovsky. It is, therefore, a work of historic significance and one that has been especially revived for Scottish Ballet, as close as possible to its original state, by the notator, Diana Curry, with new designs from Gary Harris (in consultation with MacMillan’s widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan).

It is splendid to have the work revived and especially for it to have moved to Scotland where there is a particular affinity with forest-based tales of sylphs. This take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden has narrative similarities to La Sylphide, particularly in terms of a jilted fiancée, left stranded by her betrothed’s seduction by a sylph, except that this one’s a very bad fairy! However, the narrative just doesn’t make sense (why does the fairy lead the man back to his fiancée, for example); and nor does it sit well with the music. In the opening scene, where a mother – carrying her baby (destined to grow into the aforementioned man) is dying in a storm, there is nothing in the music or the staging to suggest any such torment!

There have been many ballets made to Stravinsky’s score (by Ashton, Balanchine – who tinkered with it a lot – Ratmansky and also one by Michael Corder, currently in the BRB repertoire), but , I suggest that an unclear narrative has prevented any of these from becoming a classic. It is hardly surprising that MacMillan’s choreography was one of many interpretations to have drifted away with the fairy’s kiss.

Constance Devernay was the personification of an ice maiden in her deadly portrayal of the fairy who waits for years to collar her man (she spirits him away to live with her eternally in the Land Beyond Time and Place); Bethany Kingsley-Garner gave an honest account of the bewildered young woman who watches her fiancé being bewitched into a balletic version of the walking dead; and Andrew Peasgood gave a fine performance of the virtuoso challenges set by MacMillan, on the skills of MacLeary, including those first-ever double tours in a MacMillan ballet.

I will say little about the closing number, Elite Syncopations, since it will appear again to close Programme 3; suffice to record that it was a unique experience to see dancers from all five companies come together in one performance; the highlights being a slinky, charismatic Calliope Rag by English National Ballet’s Precious Adams, and an arresting number by The Royal Ballet’s fast-rising star, Yasmine Naghdi, in Scott Joplin’s Stop Time Rag.