The third programme in the excellent festival to honour Sir Kenneth MacMillan, 25 years after his death, was prefaced by an intimate performance of a work that is rather unique amongst his oeuvreSea of Troubles (1988) is a late MacMillan ballet but created in the chamber style of his very early ballets and in a vintage form that brings to mind the mannered masques of the 1940s and 50s, such as José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane. As Limón’s most celebrated work is a quartet based upon Othello, so Sea of Troubles is a sextet loosely inspired by another Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet

Yorke Dance Project in <i>Sea of Troubles</i> © Helen Maybanks | ROH 2017
Yorke Dance Project in Sea of Troubles
© Helen Maybanks | ROH 2017

Another aspect to its uniqueness was that MacMillan made it – as a break from what was to be his final full-length work (The Prince of the Pagodas) – in a fortnight, for the collective Dance Advance, formed by dancers who had formerly been with The Royal Ballet; amongst whose number were Russell Maliphant and Susan Crow, the latter being both responsible for commissioning the original work and for staging this delightful revival of such a tiny gem from the MacMillan collection.

The title comes from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (‘…or to take Arms against a Sea of Troubles...’ ) with the action beginning at the point of his father’s death, thereafter freely adapted in several capsules, spread across four scenes, representing the Prince of Denmark’s anguished hallucinations, stalked by his father’s ghost and wracked by the guilt occasioned by the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia and his mother, Gertrude. MacMillan deliberately blurred the clarity of narrative by inter-changing the characters amongst the dancers; a knotted confusion that was often hard to unravel, in spite of the obvious use of simple props to identify particular characters. MacMillan had turned to his wife, Deborah, for these straightforward designs and she again played a key role in enabling this revival.  

Dance Advance survived for just three years after Sea of Troubles and this chamber expressionist ballet was revived by Scottish Ballet in 1992 (the same year MacMillan passed away), and again in 2002 and 2003, by a cast of dancers which included Adam Cooper (who led the revival), Sarah Wildor, and dancers of English National Ballet. This latest revival is in the hands of a group that seems similar in intent to Dance Advance: Yorke Dance Project, approaching its twentieth year under the continued leadership of its founder, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, is a company self-proclaimed to be ‘committed to presenting new work alongside the choreography of past masters’.

Yorke Dance Project in <i>Sea of Troubles</i> © Helen Maybanks | ROH 2017
Yorke Dance Project in Sea of Troubles
© Helen Maybanks | ROH 2017

This revival gains an immediate filip through the early involvement of one of the UK’s most sought-after dancers, Jonathan Goddard, and his haunted, dark-eyed angst is dominant throughout the 35-minute work. The choreography is largely grounded, another reminder of the early experimentation of MacMillan’s work from the 1950s where he generally ignored the virtuosity of men jumping; and the dancers spend an unusual amount of time in floor-based movement. As well as the ever-watchable Goddard, there is strong male support from Jordi Calpe Serrats and Edd Mitton; and elegant, swirling movement flowed from the three women (Freya Jeffs, Amy Thake and Daisy West), exchanging two female roles, while remaining mostly loyal to Ophelia.

Three excellent onstage musicians played the challenging music of Anton Webern and Bohuslav Martinü, which MacMillan had used before to help describe the darkness in some of his most expressionist work (Webern for My Brother, My Sisters and Different Drummer; Martinü for the one-act Anastasia, which became the final act of the full-length ballet, and Valley of Shadows).      

Perhaps the most unsual aspect of Sea of Troubles was that it premiered at the University of Sussex, in 1988; and, in contrast to the champagne and smoked salmon to celebrate a Royal Opera House opening, MacMillan entertained the six dancers to a fish-and-chips supper in nearby Brighton. Made just fifty or so months before his death, it seems that there was so much about this rudimentary capsule of expressionism that was a throwback to his early work for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. And, for this reason alone, this charming miniature is to be cherished and, hopefully, kept in the repertoire. Bravo to Yorke Dance Project for rekindling this particular flame, and for burning it so brightly.