As principal choreographer and later director of The Royal Ballet in London, Kenneth MacMillan reinvigorated classical ballet by using dramatic narrative to investigate the human psyche. He believed dance should reflect the realities and hardships of people’s lives, rather than just depict fairy tales. His works were emotionally intense and often featured harsh themes: fear, isolation, oppression, war, violence and loss.
MacMillan was born in Scotland. He grew up in a poor family and relocated to England when his school became an air raid target during World War II. In England, he studied dance and eventually won a scholarship to attend the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in London. At 17, he was invited to become a founding member of the school’s second company. Two years later, he joined the main company, Sadler’s Wells Ballet.
As a performer, MacMillan had sparkling technique and was considered an excellent dramatist, but he suffered from crippling stage fright. Six years after joining the main company, he discovered his talent offstage when he choreographed Somnambulism, a dance about anxiety, monotony and premonition, as part of a workshop. The piece received a warm reception, and he began creating ballets for Sadler’s Wells on a regular basis.
Houston Ballet’s Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh in Manon. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet
In 1962, artistic director Ninette de Valois appointed MacMillan resident choreographer of the company, which by then had been renamed The Royal Ballet. Throughout the 1960s, he created some of the company’s most treasured ballets, including The Rite of Spring (1962), Romeo and Juliet (1965) and Song of the Earth (1965).
In 1966, MacMillan took a position as director of the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin. He stayed for four years before returning to The Royal Ballet in 1970 to succeed Frederick Ashton as artistic director. Feeling spread too thin between his administrative and choreographic duties, he chose to give up his position as artistic director in 1977 to choreograph full-time. In his later years, he served as American Ballet Theatre’s associate director and artistic associate at Houston Ballet.
In 1992, while attending a restaging of his 1978 work Mayerling, MacMillan collapsed backstage from a heart attack and died at 62.
ABT’s Cory Stearns and Hee Seo in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by John Grigiatis, courtesy of ABT
MacMillan’s choreography was strongly rooted in classical ballet technique, with particular regard to the long lines of the arms, legs and feet. But he took the upright shapes and classic lines of traditional ballet vocabulary and made them more angular, abstract and off-balance to amplify the emotional impact. In his works, which were almost all narrative, he drew inspiration from literature and the hardships of his own life and those around him.
MacMillan’s first full-length ballet, Romeo and Juliet, ended up being his most popular work. Check out Royal Ballet dancers Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson dancing the balcony scene pas de deux.
In Song of the Earth, a non-narrative reflection on death, MacMillan modified classical vocabulary by adding parallel legs, angular arms, flexed feet, floor work and broken lines. Watch dancers from Houston Ballet in this clip from Song of the Earth.
In Manon, to highlight the emotional intensity between the flawed heroine Manon and her lover Des Grieux, MacMillan choreographed three highly complex pas de deux. See the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo in this clip from a 2004 performance of Manon.