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David

Scottish Ballet’s revival of MacMillan’s “Le Baiser de la fée”

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I am surprised that Scottish Ballet’s revival of MacMillan’s “Le Baiser de la fée”, based on Han Christian Andersen’s 1861 fairy tale - “The Ice Maiden”, has not raised more excitement amongst Forum members and, since it’s a quiet time I’m being cheeky and uploading some extracts from my own notes, gleaned from many sources in an attempt to whip up interest!

 

 It was in April 1960 that Kenneth MacMillan made his first attempt, choreographing his own version for The Royal Ballet with Svetlana Beriosova as the Fairy, Donald MacLeary as the young man and his own Muse, Lynn Seymour as the bride. “He made melting, skimming steps that showed off her fluid movements and luscious feet … she was adorably soft and spontaneous … Beriosova was a grandly fluent fairy”.

 

By then he was the eighth choreographer to tackle the Hans Andersen story! Both Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine had warned him of the difficulties, arising chiefly from the lack of obvious relationships between Stravinsky’s score and Andersen’s narrative.

 

This was Kenneth MacMillan’s third Stravinsky ballet, the previous two being Danses Concertantes (1955) and Agon (1959). He had no time for Stravinsky’s identification of the Fairy with Tchaikovsky’s Muse, or indeed for fairies of any kind: “I’m sick to death of fairy tales” he told The Times in December 1960. But like Ashton he was drawn to the music. For Ashton the instant of the kiss is the climactic ecstatic moment in the young man’s life. But MacMillan had a darker story to tell. “His instinct was for the bride betrayed. His narrative was one of good and evil - of the abandoned bride (“She is the one who is lost”) and a young man in the grip of everlasting darkness.”

 

Most critics at the time reviewed MacMillan’s 1960 version favourably, singling out Lynn Seymour and for special mention:

 

Richard Buckle: a “tremendous success - MacMillan, with his ear to the ground, has perfectly translated into movement the filigree of shimmering insect splendour which is a feature of this score”. Of Lynn Seymour as the Bride, he wrote that she “skims and flits like a happy gnat through her lovely allegretto variation: she has the priceless gift of lending to art an air of spontaneity, and without question makes a triumph of her first created role. Of Svetlana Beriosova as the Fairy. “Her swooping boreal gestures and Alpine style point the difference between god and human”.

 

 Alexander Bland (The Observer) wrote: “It is not until the pas de deux that interest quickens, the high point of the evening being soon reached in the fiancée’s solo, a delicious drifting rubato affair, which Lynn Seymour will make into a winner, when she has grown into it”.

 

And so on …..

 

But despite the positive reviews the ballet did not survive. The reasons were partly that the musical demands of Stravinsky’s score were impractical for a touring company but primarily because of Kenneth Rowell’s set designs. In place of the traditional images of fairyland Macmillan had his designer, Kenneth Rowell, fashion a threatening landscape in dark colours, “an abstract world of rock, gorges, caverns and ominous icebergs” … described by Clement Crisp as “arguably the most beautiful and poetic designs seen at Covent Garden since the war.” These were so complex that, at a time when the Company could call on sixty other works in the repertory, there were only six other ballets with which Le Baiser de la fée could, for technical reasons, be programmed. Of those six some were not compatible on the same programme. MacMillan’s Le Baiser de la fée proved a nightmare to schedule. At a disastrous performance at the Edinburgh Festival the following August the scenery collapsed nearly braining one of the dancers. The ballet was mothballed after only 33 performances.

 

However Le Baiser de la fée continued to fascinate MacMillan and 25yrs later in 1986 he revisited his 1960 original work making changes for a new generation of dancers: Fiona Chadwick, Sandra Conley and Jonathan Cope. He kept most of the choreography he had made for Seymour, but changed the Fairy’s role considerably, “making a new intricate solo for Chadwick, showing off her sense of anger and wilfulness”. It is this production that Scottish Ballet are reviving.

 

In his earlier production, MacMillan’s preoccupation had been with the betrayed Bride, the figure in the ballet truly left alone after the fairy entices her husband away. But in the revised 1986 version, his focus was on the Fairy’s pursuit of the entranced young man, thereby returning to Stravinsky’s original intention: the work as an allegory for the artist’s dilemma, that ordinary happiness must be sacrificed to the muse.

 

“It was the music that naturally attracted me”, he told Clive Barnes, “certainly not the story. I realise that the story is not altogether convincing. But I also found the theme, or, if you like, allegory, extraordinarily interesting.” Barnes commented: “MacMillan cuts to its heart - the artist in society, the man marked out from his fellows, unable to join in their life and dedicated to suffering”.

 

To Mary Clarke of The Guardian who had seen the original ballet in 1960 it seemed that MacMillan had “retained much of what was written for Lynn Seymour – those swirling, circular lifts, those limpid descents when the foot melts into the ground above a bent knee, the sorrow of her exit after desertion. And how marvellous to see MacMillan writing again in a purely classical style.” John Percival of The Times also noted the close resemblances to the 1960 version. “I cannot understand why the earlier version was unsuccessful … it was blessed with superb performances and one of the most beautiful decors ever created for the Royal Ballet, a set of marvellous abstract landscapes by Kenneth Rowell.”

 

Kenneth Rowell’s designs had been destroyed and were replaced with designs by Martin Sutherland but they did not find favour with the critics. In The Observer Jann Parry dismissed the set as unimaginative: “He succeeds in evoking neither the Fairy’s ‘Land beyond Time and Place’, nor the village from which she claims her initially reluctant hostage.”  Though seen as Kenneth MacMillan ‘at his most exquisitely classical’, his 1986 production like its predecessor failed to hit a popular chord and once again it shortly disappeared from the repertoire.

 

MacMillan’s original 1960 production was clearly too much, both orchestrally and with its intricate designs, for the Royal Ballet at the time but would probably have fitted well into the Company today in its present home. One would have expected the Royal Ballet to be the Company to revive it now, particularly since they still have several of the 1986 cast including Jonathan Cope among their ranks. However twice bitten, thrice shy and it is Scottish Ballet that have picked up this daunting challenge.

 

They have enlisted the Benesh Notator Diana Curry who worked with MacMillan in the 1980s: “Although the technique was quite new in the 1960s Sir Kenneth always worked with a choreologist and much of Le Baiser de la fée had been recorded. However there was a significant lacuna and that was the solo where the bridegroom, danced by Donald MacLeary in 1960 and Jonathan Cope in 1986, goes looking for his bride and finds himself waylaid by the fairy. Fortunately that scene had been recorded on film which Ms Curry has analysed and notated”.

 

The tricky problem of the design has been entrusted to Gary Harris, I understand at the personal wish of Lady MacMillan.

 

Gary has an hugely impressive CV. He has worked the world over as a dancer, teacher, repetiteur and designer … in 1991 he joined the Royal Ballet as notator and repetiteur, working with choreographers such as William Forsythe and Kenneth MacMillan and re-staging the works of Fredrick Ashton … He was Associate Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet and then of the Royal New Zealand Ballet until December 2010 … Since returning from New Zealand, he has continued re-staging the works of Kenneth MacMillan and in 2013, designed Christopher Hampson’s Hansel & Gretel for Scottish Ballet.”

 

One has to applaud Scottish Ballet. I have hopes that their revival may prove to be a significant event. Presumably, that is why someone (hopefully the BBC?) has undertaken to film it! Meanwhile I would welcome comments from the more knowledgeable members of the Forum, some of whom I’m sure will have seen one or both of the original productions.

 

 

Edited by David
Grammar!
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Might the lack of enthusiasm have to do with the disappointment felt at the revival?  Having seen pictures of the original designs, the new ones were dull by comparison and choreography created for dancers as unique as Beriosova and Seymour is never going to look as impressive an anyone else however good the successors may be.

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On 08/09/2017 at 12:07, MAB said:

Might the lack of enthusiasm have to do with the disappointment felt at the revival?  Having seen pictures of the original designs, the new ones were dull by comparison and choreography created for dancers as unique as Beriosova and Seymour is never going to look as impressive an anyone else however good the successors may be.

Have never seen this, so I've got no pre conceived ideas about it. But I don't altogether agree with choreography looking less impressive on successors. While the dancers who were those who created the roles were memorable in them, other dancers have often bought something else to the role. Think of the many superb Juliet s we have seen, and I'm sure that David Wall's Mayerling was considered a definitive performance until a certain Ed Watson came along!  Certain ballets will always be associated with the creators of roles, but a great deal of the enjoyment of ballet, for me at any rate, is seeing  dancers tackle roles in ballets that I have known for years. 

 

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R&J and Mayerling have seldom been out of the RB rep since their premieres whereas no performance style has been built over the years between Baiser's original run and the sole revival twenty six years later.   Clearly you never saw Seymour or you would understand what I meant by unique.

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Mab, as a ballet goer since the late 50s I can assure you I saw Seymour , Beriosova and many others many times! Seymour was certainly unique and it's just a pity that there is so little of her work to see now. i didn't see her in Baiser so can't comment. Obviously choreographers tend to have dancers that they enjoy working with and whose style particularly suits their work, but different interpretations can often show aspects of a work that adds to its enjoyment. 

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Seymour was indeed unique (though like ninamargaret I didn't see her in Baiser). But all great dancers are unique, and if a work is good enough it can be enriched by subsequent interpreters no matter how long ago it was created or how rarely it has been danced. I have very positive memories of the revival of Baiser, perhaps because it featured Fiona Chadwick (also unique) so I'm very glad it's being revived.  

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At the MacMillan Conference a few years ago,we were shown a very brief filmed extract  of Lynn Seymour in the original Baiser presumably the Bride's main solo;it was a most beautiful piece of dancing;it was a ballet  I had always wanted to see purely based on seeing  a photograph of Beriosova and MacLeary but I never did.

I very much like the score but most attempts eg Kudelka and Corder  performed by BRB have not been wholly successful..

Perhaps  Balanchine was right to use only the reduced Divertimento score(half the length of the full) with only a suggestion of "story" in what is mainly an extended pas de deux and even he had several attempts apparently.

I wish Scottish well and hope they can at some point bring it South again.

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