The mere existence of this programme is a wonder. Several years ago, I wrote about Kenneth MacMillan’s early works for my MA dissertation, arguing that Laiderette and House of Birds contained expressionist elements that began a thematic golden thread, stretching through much of his subsequent repertoire. It was an academic point since these works had not been seen for decades and were presumed “lost”.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Thiago Soares in <i>House of Bird</i> © Bill Cooper
Lauren Cuthbertson and Thiago Soares in House of Bird
© Bill Cooper
Step forward, Viviana Durante, who spent many years at The Royal Ballet, dancing in at least a dozen MacMillan ballets, including the creation of key roles in Winter Dreams and his last work, The Judas Tree. Durante has now formed a pop-up company, here comprising leading dancers from The Royal Ballet, Ballet Black and Scottish Ballet, with her first venture being the revival of Laiderette (MacMillan’s third work), a pas de deux from Danses Concertantes (his fourth work) and an excerpt from House of Birds (number 5). So, in one evening, three of MacMillan’s first five works were once more wholly, or partially, revealed.

The ballets were performed in the reverse order of their original creation, beginning with a fifteen-minute extract from House of Birds, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells on the 26th May 1955. It was a cast-off idea – originally considered by MacMillan’s close friend, John Cranko –to make a ballet on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale (Jorinda and Joringel) about a boy and girl who fall foul of a witch with a predeliction for turning children into caged birds. MacMillan altered this Hansel and Gretel allusion, to a pair of young lovers, and here the roles originally danced by Maryon Lane and David Poole were revived by Lauren Cuthbertson (beguiling in a beautiful patterned white tutu, designed by Royal Ballet wardrobe assistants, Rossella D’Agostino and Tjasha Stroud) and Thiago Soares. There is just enough of their dancing to show that, even this early in his career, MacMillan was capable of creating romantic, lyrical pas de deux, with shades of movement that, a decade later, would capture the greatest love story of them all in his seminal production of Romeo and Juliet.  

The predatory Bird Woman was portrayed by Sayaka Ichikawa, essaying the tremulous, threatening movements of birds stalking the ground, before the man wrecks her plans to enchant his beloved, thereby setting the scene for their poetic duet of reconciliation. House of Birds was filmed for transmission by the BBC on the 16th September 1956 and one senses that there is enough both on film and in old notations to completely restore this important ballet. 

Artists of the Viviana Durante Company in <i>House of Birds</i> © Bill Cooper
Artists of the Viviana Durante Company in House of Birds
© Bill Cooper
The duet from Danses Concertantes was little more than a brief filler, to refresh the palette and change the mood, between the two larger-scale pieces. It has personal relevance to Durante because it was the one work of this early MacMillan trio that she had danced, herself. First performed on the 18th January 1955, at Sadler’s Wells, MacMillan’s first commissioned work received such critical acclaim that it determined his retirement from dancing (at 26) to concentrate solely on choreography. 

Danses Concertantes was also MacMillan’s first foray into abstract ballet (destined always as the poor relation to his expressionist narratives). The pas de deux is the fourth of five movements in Stravinsky’s music and was danced by Akane Takada and José Alves: she, all glamorous angles and pirouettes; he, the sturdy support. Both dancers wore impressive golden ornamentation on their spiky black, ‘urchin-cut’ wigs, modelled on the original designs of Nicholas Georgiadis in the first of his many collaborations with MacMillan.  

The revival of Laiderette was made possible through eight months of painstaking research and retrieval by notator, Mayumi Hotta. Laiderette is a young girl abandoned by an itinerant troupe of clowns in the grounds of a mansion, where she becomes involved in a masked ball. The host falls for her but when Laiderette is unmasked, her baldness is revealed and she is rejected; doomed to continue her life as a lonely clown.

Francesca Hayward and Thiago Soares in <i>Laiderette</i> © Bill Cooper
Francesca Hayward and Thiago Soares in Laiderette
© Bill Cooper

Having recently triumphed in Manon, Francesca Hayward was, again, all-conquering in this most heart-breaking of MacMillan roles; the precursor to a whole repertoire of his ill-fated women (and like Durante, I expect Hayward to work her way steadily through them). Thiago Soares was the host unable to accept Laiderette’s imperfect form; and Ricardo Cervera (although unrecognisable under his disguise) made a welcome return to the stage as the mask-seller. 

Laiderette was first performed by the experimental Choreographic Club, on the 24th January 1954, with Lane in the title role, and Poole as the host. Two months after the première of House of Birds, Ballet Rambert took Laiderette into its repertoire where it remained for several years.

This programme was a remarkable achievement on a small budget, resonating with the frugal circumstances of MacMillan’s early works for the Choreographic Club, further enhanced by the intimate chamber ballet feel of the Barbican Pit; and it provided an outstanding, purposeful debut for the Viviana Durante Company.