Deborah MacMillan: an eye for the stage picture.
With drama equal to anything you might see onstage, Sir Kenneth MacMillan died suddenly of a heart attack at age sixty-two on October 29, 1992, backstage at the Royal Opera House during the first performance of a revival of his Mayerling. He left all rights to his ballets, quite simply, in the capable hands of his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan.
The arrangement has an air of inevitability. His happy, almost-twenty-year marriage has always been credited with smoothing out his bumpy life. As his biographer, Edward Thorpe, wrote, meeting his future wife "at a time of deep despondency ... changed Kenneth's life, gave him new incentives, reinvigorated his work--even altered his personality."
A trim, soft-spoken woman whose talk is as direct as her gaze, Lady MacMillan is a distinguished Australian-born painter who has a clear eye for the total theatrical picture of her husband's work. She was involved in arranging his contracts, and she also did the designs for two of his ballets (her typically humorous, self-effacing comment is, "It's nepotism, I say quickly, before anybody else does"). She combines this self-deprecation with a quiet authority.
In the two years since his death, she has been busy responding to the many requests to perform his ballets, which were already being done far beyond his home company, the Royal Ballet, where he held the title "principal choreographer," and American Ballet Theatre, where he was artistic associate from 1984 to 1990. The two MacMillan ballets that the Royal Ballet showed during its season at the Metropolitan Opera House in July, Mayerling and his last ballet, The Judas Tree, typify the strong dramatic roles in his work. He had had recurrent health problems, especially in recent years, but when he died he had been working hard on the dances for the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel, a huge hit both at the National Theatre in London and at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City.
I spoke with Lady MacMillan at the dress rehearsal of ATB's Manon at the Metropolitan Opera House last May. During the rehearsal she watched the stage intently and conferred on easy terms with Wendy Walker, the Benesh notator who works with the MacMillan repertoire at ABT, and ABT ballet mistress Georgina parkinson, who looks after it, as well as with director Kevin McKenzie, assistant director Ross Stretton, and the lighting people. She discussed wigs, spacing, lighting, and Nicholas Georgiadis's designs. MacMillan had talked about giving Manon to ABT, and Lady MacMillan had authorized its first performances the previous season.
She calls ABT's production "a huge team effort," saying, "It shows you how professional they all are, because this is going on with very little stage time." She has seen the company often because of her husband's association with it, and she recently joined its board. She comments, "[Kevin McKenzie] is doing lots of good things. The company's looking wonderful, really wonderful." They are talking in a general way about further MacMillan works.
"It's quite a responsibility," she says of her position, "but it's one I'm very happy to take on, because I think the work's great. He was very meticulous about how things went [on-stage], and who would be in charge. And all I'm trying to do really is to establish with the various companies [around the world]--they're all terribly cooperative--that the same sort of conditions should really be happening now. So far the companies I've been dealing with were [mostly] people who knew him and knew the way he worked and his taste in casting. I'm floating around supporting the professionals who are in place, whom I have enormous faith in, and who have the same sort of standards. So far it seems to be working quite well."
She is clear about which areas of the work she feels most competent to deal with. She absorbed a great deal from "being around and about. I was always there," she says. "I can look at the stage picture, because I feel that's my training [as a painter], and I can have an opinion about that. I wouldn't pretend to interfere with the choreography or the notation. It's quite a small world, the ballet world, and it's pretty cooperative, so I've found an enormous amount of help and support. If a decision has to be made and I don't know something, I'll certainly ask."
She will generally license a ballet to a company for three years and a given number of performances. Renewal is a possibility, provided that the work is looked at again. A choreologist sets it from the Benesh notation (besides Walker, there is Monica Parker at the Royal Ballet, who often works with other companies). Then someone who knows the ballet well rehearses it. Once Benesh became readily available, MacMillan insisted on all his ballets being notated, and he always referred to the notation score, his wife says. Productions are never mounted just from videotapes, although those can be useful adjuncts. "The video is always an interpretation," she explains. "And the [notator's] book is the bible. And though nobody wants it revived just according to the bible so it's revied in aspic, it's the thing that everyone goes back to for the accuracy of the piece."
Another point she makes is that she must have approval of casting, which she may discuss with advisers familiar with the company involved. "The ballets are only as good as their interpreters, so the casting is incredibly important," she remarks.
Additionally, she says, "The production has to be done according to the designer's wishes, in relation to what the estate wants." Costumes must be made by the original cotume shop so that the materials are the same "and the integrity of the production is not undermined at all." Her husband felt strongly about the visual elements. "He was famous for choosing very good designers and for picking people who perhaps hadn't designed for the stage before: artists, painters. It was always a whole theatrical production.
"And in a way I suppose my function now is just to be there to watch the elements come together, because there are specific people in place to do specific things. And if it helps them if I'm another eye to look at the stage picture, well, then, I'm very happy to do it, because there are so many things that come together in one dress rehearsal--wigs and hats and shoes and costumes and lights and tempi and everything. It's an adrenaline nightmare, actually."
About the Royal Ballet, she says, "I've got a very good working relationship with them. I respect them hugely. And they've worked closely with Kenneth. So they always ring up, just as a courtesy thing, I think." She speaks highly of artistic director Anthony Dowell, and is grateful for his support, as when he came to the dress rehearsal of Carousel after her husband's death. She is on the board of the Royal Opera House.
Besides Manon, other MacMillan ballets especially in demand include Romeo and Juliet and Song of the Earth. Australian Ballet will perform Las Hermanas this season, following its recent success with Manon.
What kind of queries has she turned down? She has had a number of requests for Manon from companies that weren't large enough to do it properly, and she doesn't want it to be reduced in size. She has rejected all requests for Mayerling because "it's a ballet that is very much associated with Royal Ballet." She is also concerned occasionally about "long-service casting," feeling, for example, that "you have to actually believe that [Manon] is a young girl on her way to a convent."
On the other hand, she says, although she may not allow an excerpt to be danced at a gala, she is giving permission for proper dance schools to do ballets and even excerpts, without royalty fees, "because he had a great rapport with youngsters, and he believed passionately in opportunities for kids." As in professional companies, the pieces must be both taught from the notation and rehearsed by approved people.
What about reviving early works that were not notated? There is interest in his early works, she says, and many of them were filmed, but "whether they'll be revived I don't know. It's hard to tell, really." While MacMillan was alive, Birmingham Royal Ballet revived The Burrow using film, and he made changes in it. The Invitation, which left a memorable impression when the Royal Ballet performed it in New York City in the early 1960s, with the young Lynn Seymour as the rape victim, was performed by the Birmingham company recently. But, Lady MacMillan says, "he wasn't too keen for it to be revived, because I think he wanted to rethink elements of it. Various people want to see it again, and I think I'll have to look at the film and decide whether I'll say yes to that."
Life must go on for her and their teenaged daughter, Charlotte. Lady MacMillan has done some painting since her husband's death and has continued to exhibit her work. She was very pleased that the Royal Opera House acquired his posthumous portrait, one of a number of portraits of him that she has painted.
About the estate, she says, "I'm not going to become a professional widow. I'll keep it in perspective, I hope." She is thinking about setting up a trust eventually. "His work stands the best chance of being protected if there's a group of people."
But looking after his ballets "has given me a very good focus since his death, because I don't know that I would have been able to cope with just being alone painting. I've had to be concentrated and make decisions. All those things are good, because it's a huge turmoil when somebody dies. However much you're prepared for it, you're really not. You have to deal with it, you have to go through that process, but it's good if you've got a reason for getting out of bed in the morning." She chuckles. "When you've got to answer the telephone and say, 'All right, I'll come and have a look,' or whatever. It's quite a good way through it. And also the last thing he would have wanted would be for his work not to be looked after."
Her healing process clearly is helped by her enthusiasm and admiration for the dance world. She calls dancers "an admirable bunch of people, the way they work. The stress is extraordinary. It's a difficult career. I think it's hellish, the fact that they're over the hill as they're emotionally maturing. That calls for a terrific strength of character.
"And it's wonderful when you see them picked for a role. [Kenneth] had a great gift for picking people out of the back row of the corps de ballet. I love seeing them grab hold of a role. And I like seeing a lot of different casts, different interpretations. I don't ever get bored watching. There's quite a lot of latitude in Kenneth's work. It's been a huge plus for me to see the way companies respect his work, the way they can't wait to get their teeth into the roles, and the performances they're giving.
"There aren't many [other] collaborative enterprises. The theater throws up a kind of passion that's very admirable, onstage and off. There's something magical about the whole ephemeral thing of two and a half hours of all those people producing something and all these people experiencing it, and then it's over. That's what I've always loved about live performance. It's quite a human triumph, I think."
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|Title Annotation:||widow of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1994|
|Next Article:||American Dance Festival.|