The second programme in this fortnight of national celebrations to honour Sir Kenneth MacMillan brought together the home team from The Royal Ballet and their Kensington-based contemporaries from English National Ballet. Their double bill presented very different accounts of the suffering of women: opening with an allegorical fable that ends in a violent gang rape; followed by a melancholic reflection on the ever-present threat of loss.  

Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson (of The Royal Ballet) in <i>The Judas Tree</i> © Bill Cooper, ROH 2017
Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson (of The Royal Ballet) in The Judas Tree
© Bill Cooper, ROH 2017

If one discounts his unfinished work on the National Theatre’s production of Carousel, The Judas Tree was MacMillan’s last stand. Premiered in March 1992, it was his only ballet made to commissioned music. Brian Elias’s symphonic score is a notable triumph; a work that grows thematically, knitting fragments from one section to another across five movements with a dramatic coda that ties these threads together. It also engages the unmistakeable sounds of steel drums to evoke notions of the scrapyards and construction sites of South-East London.  

Lauren Cuthbertson brings a sultry magnificence to the most complex of female roles: she is the woman, created by MacMillan as a deliberate mix of whore and virgin – both Magdalene and Madonna – scantily dressed in a leotard, designed by Jock McFadyen to approximate his own painting of a brightly-bikinied womanCarried to this derelict industrial wasteland in the hinterland of Canary Wharf, wrapped in a sheet, she becomes both the manipulator and the victim for a gang of construction workers (and, believe me, this is no “Considerate Constructors’ Site”).    

Cuthbertson’s exhausting journey from courageous defiance to a crumpled, shivering, crotch-clutching wreck, following the violent gang rape scene, was a tour de force of dramatic dance theatre. Her vulnerability is as dramatically exposed as her body and it must have taken some change of gear to shift from the character of Alice (in Wonderland) in a performance that was beamed around the world on the previous evening. 

Thiago Soares in <i>The Judas Tree</i> © Bill Cooper, ROH 2017
Thiago Soares in The Judas Tree
© Bill Cooper, ROH 2017

It is clear that there is a “Jesus” figure (Ed Watson reprising a role he has performed many times), a “Judas” – named as the Foreman - (Thiago Soares) and a “Simon Peter” observer/denier (Reece Clarke), amongst a gang of eleven other men. Soares is a brooding, domineering presence throughout, bringing contrasts of machismo and homoeroticism to another complex role. Clarke brings a sense of mystery to the insincere “Peter” character, avoiding the violence (including the disturbing lynching of the “Jesus” figure) but incapable of stopping it. This was an exceptional cast that dealt superbly with the many challenges MacMillan presented in his final psychological drama, a true expressionist exposé of the outsider. 

When MacMillan first suggested the idea of choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s beautiful late song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, the idea was rejected by the Opera House board on the grounds that the music was sacrosanct and unsuited for dance. Six years’ later, MacMillan made Song of the Earth for the Stuttgart Ballet and it was such a resounding success that The Royal Ballet about-turned to adopt it as their own! It is a rather delicious irony that another émigré from The Royal Ballet, Tamara Rojo, should have the chance to bring a different company to perform MacMillan’s masterpiece at the Royal Opera House.

It is also rather touching that she gave the opportunity to open this brief season to another dancer: the long-serving principal, Erina Takahashi, who gave a beautiful and serene performance, vividly bringing to life the melancholy in the women’s songs (excellently sung by contralto Rhonda Browne). Six songs are evenly divided between a Tenor (Samuel Sakker) and the contralto and I particularly liked Sakker’s way of observing the dancers when silent, thus becoming an integral part of the performance.

Jeffrey Cirio (of English National Ballet) in <i>Song of the Earth</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Jeffrey Cirio (of English National Ballet) in Song of the Earth
© Laurent Liotardo

Isaac Hernandez continues to impress with his lyrical dancing and powerful versatility and he was excellent as the man haunted by the idea of death, brought into vivid realisation by Jeffrey Cirio as the masked Messenger of Death, stalking the events depicted in the songs, from Autumn Solitude to the penultimate Drunkards of Spring, both as observer and participant, always being present at the end of each episode (or life). Amongst the supporting dancers, Senri Kou gave a fine performance as the second woman; and Tiffany Hedman and Aitor Arrieta were similarly excellent as the lead pair in the fourth song (Of Beauty). 

The final Song (The Farewell) is as long as the other five put together and includes the only section in which there is no song (and no singer on stage). In my humble opinion, this is amongst the best music ever written, perhaps reflecting Mahler’s acceptance of his diseased heart and the likely imminence of his own death, and the Royal Opera House orchestra, conducted by the ENB’s enigmatic musical director, Gavin Sutherland, gave a terrific performance. It is a beautiful half-hour of dance, proving that MacMillan could turn this musical masterpiece into an altogether different masterpiece while producing one of the most captivating and enigmatic endings in ballet.       

These complex works of genius, created almost 30 years’ apart, prove beyond any doubt that this great choreographer had so much creativity left to give when anxiety and his own weakened heart brought the messenger of death to him, in this same place, twenty-five years’ ago.