A Celebration of Sir Kenneth MacMillan: Northern Ballet

Legendary choreographer Kenneth MacMillan died twenty five years ago this October, and to mark the occasion ballet companies all over the UK are staging his works. Northern Ballet perform their offering – Las Hermanas, Concerto and Gloria – in Leeds and Bradford, bringing MacMillan’s work to audiences outside London (sadly, a rare thing).

I visited the Bradford Alhambra on Friday evening to see their triple bill – it’s a beautiful little theatre and I can highly recommend the view from R18 in the Stalls.

Las Hermanas, based on Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba, is a Gothic narrative work swathed in black lace, spiky choreography and brittle harpsichord. Five sisters living with their tyrannical mother scheme against each other and dream of escaping, until one day a suitor enters their midst. He is promised to the eldest daughter, who resists his approaches in a tense, physical pas de deux, but disaster ensues when the youngest (and most provocative) sister meets with him in an erotic duet reminiscent of Mayerling. Their exposure – thanks to the scheming of a third sister – results in a dramatic, shocking finale.

The second MacMillan piece chosen by Northern Ballet is Concerto, an abstract work set to Shostakovitch’s second piano concerto. In the jaunty first and third movements, a large cast of energetic dancers leap, skip and spin across the broad blue canvas of stage – leading soloist Antoinette Brooks-Daw has possibly the most expressive face I’ve ever seen on a ballerina. The lynchpin of the piece is the second movement, an elegaic pas de deux that I saw danced for the first time at the Ann Maguire gala last month. Unfortunately, the lead soloists never seem particularly at ease with the pure, technical demands of MacMillan’s choreography.

The evening concludes with Gloria, an almost unbearably poignant meditation on World War I set to haunting choral music. Male dancers appear as soldiers in wide-brimmed helmets and a camouflage of brown reds, while the female dancers are apparitions in tattered white dresses – angels, perhaps, or memories of the women left behind at home. As with Concerto, there is a lack of confidence in the key pas de deux, which results in some untidy lift work – leading man Lorenzo Trossello, in contrast, fills the stage with confident, expansive grace.

This well-chosen programme demonstrates how versatile and innovative MacMillan was as an artist. While Las Hermanas is a great showcase for Northern Ballet’s theatrical skill, Gloria is undoubtedly the highlight. The company will be performing it as part of the Royal Ballet’s commemorative celebrations in two weeks’ time, but they will need to sharpen the work up in rehearsals if they are to impress an eagle-eyed Covent Garden audience, who are used to watching MacMillan performed to perfection several times a year.

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