[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/68323?ns=guardian&pageName=Different+Drummer%3A+The+Life+of+Kenneth+MacMillan+by+Jann+Parry+%7C+Book+re%3AArticle%3A1312927&ch=Books&c3=Guardian&c4=Books%2CDance%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=David+Jays&c7=09-Dec-05&c8=1312927&c9=Article&c10=Review%2CFeature&c11=Books&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FBooks%2FDance[/img]David Jays on a choreographer with a distinctly dark side
At the end of his life, Kenneth MacMillan was asked to choreograph Carousel – a musical, said the director, about sex and violence. "Well," MacMillan drawled, "that's what I do." True enough, the Scottish-born choreographer (1929-92) tugged ballet towards the dark side of the psyche. A woman pimped by her brother, self-loathing rapists, childhood taunting that ends in death: MacMillan staged them all, often for the Royal Ballet. Jann Parry's scrupulous biography relates the savage work to the artist who produced them – and neither emerges as lovable.
These are ballets about outcasts and the people who bully them: the communal scapegoat in The Rite of Spring, Mayerling's needy prince, Romeo and Juliet exiled by love. Their emotional wounds feel fresh – despite the hours MacMillan spent in psychoanalysis, he seems to have remained a stranger to himself. Preparing The Judas Tree, his final ballet, in 1992, he admitted that "There are things in me that are untapped and that have come out in this ballet that I find frightening." That psychosexual material remained available, perhaps, precisely because he hadn't worked through it.
Sibling rivalries and parental shame recur in the ballets, which Parry traces to his childhood in Dunfermline and Norfolk. She tentatively speculates about abuse in the family; certainly, MacMillan was a mystery to his war-wounded father, and cosseted by his mother. At each of their funerals, he wrote, "I felt like a stranger", and rarely returned home thereafter. Dance offered self-expression and ballet companies an alternative family – his childhood teacher had "never had a pupil so hungry to learn".
Early years of touring sound riotous: cabarets and parties with sinks full of gin, while MacMillan knitted legwarmers for the girls (he was a dab hand with the needles). The carefree larks didn't last. An elegant dancer, pegged for ballet's princes, his performing career was cut short by devastating panic attacks. Choreography offered respite, and ballets poured out of him in the 1950s, often provoked by images from voracious movie-going – Grimm fables, studies of loners, expressionist imagery pushed into psychosexual waters. Parry describes rather than evokes the work, but her accounts of these bristling pieces suggest they deserve revival alongside the plush repertory staples, Romeo, Manon and Mayerling.
Meanwhile, anxiety shaded into alcoholic depression – he downed teacups sloshing with whisky and inserted himself into his friends' marriages like an ungainly cuckoo. He craved, according to ballerina Lynn Seymour, the embrace of a substitute family: "[But] I didn't want to be Mummy."
The unhappiest periods of his life were also those with greatest responsibility, as director of the Berlin and then the Royal ballets. MacMillan's mulish integrity was temperamentally unsuited to leadership: a stranger to compromise, he scuppered company morale. Berlin was particularly dismal: refusing to learn German, brooding in the kitchen, drinking and burning the fishfingers. Through the meagre snaps in Parry's book, the lean young dancer, a rakish cigarette jutting from his lip, gradually retreats behind dark glasses, moustache and what were, even for the 70s, terrible checked suits. They aren't clothes so much as camouflage: an interviewer found him "one of those large men who look as though they would like to be small".
His sexuality too was obscure, or at least well-concealed. There's little dirt dished here, possibly because there was little to report: "I thought I was hideous-looking," he recalled. Friends assumed he was gay or bisexual, and the ballets suggest their creator had problems with girls – his heroines are typically abused, even brutalised. What makes The Invitation, Manon or The Judas Tree so queasy is that the choreographer seems complicit with both victim and abuser, provoking the assaults which pain him.
Only in his 40s did MacMillan meet and marry Deborah Williams, the forthright Australian artist who remains a strenuous keeper of the flame. Domestic contentment weaned him off prescription drugs and conquered his fear of flying, but anxieties continued to animate his work. The body is a site of shame, of quisling impulse and murky desire. This tension impels much of his choreography – its grappling lifts and scissoring legs. His muses were often gauche, headstrong dancers who burrowed into these tensions. He created Romeo and Juliet, his most popular work, for Seymour and Christopher Gable, but the 1965 premiere was nabbed by the starry partnership of Fonteyn and Nureyev. Royal Ballet politics trail poisonously throughout this book, but Parry doesn't exonerate MacMillan – cowardice and ambition persuaded him to acquiesce. When making tales of guilt and betrayal, he knew whereof he choreographed.
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Guardian: Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan by Jann Parry | Book review
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