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Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, April 2018

This popular one-act entertainment was created by Kenneth MacMillan for the Royal Ballet in 1974 on the back of the revival of Joplin’s music via Joshua Rifkin’s 1970 disc of piano rags and the use of this music in the 1973 film The Sting. In fact, seven other ragtime composers in addition to Joplin were called on for the ballet. Dancers Merle Park and Wayne Sleep were among the original cast. This DVD, recorded live at the Royal Opera House in 2010, features Sarah Lamb, Valeri Hristov and Steven McRae. © 2018 Gramophone

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, May 2011

MACMILLAN, Kenneth: Concerto / Elite Syncopations / The Judas Tree [Ballets] (Royal Ballet, 2010) (NTSC) OA1038D
MACMILLAN, Kenneth: Concerto / Elite Syncopations / The Judas Tree [Ballets] (Royal Ballet, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7074D

The British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan died in 1992 at the age of 63, suffering a heart attack backstage at Covent Garden during a performance of one of his ballets. This release, documenting March 2010 performances by the Royal Ballet of three of his works, is a reminder of the breadth of his artistic imagination. It should be welcome both by dance aficionados and by more casual ballet consumers.

MacMillan, who served as artistic director of the Royal Ballet from 1970 to 1977 and then as its principal choreographer until his death, is remembered for the darkness and serious content of many of his works for the stage. But Elite Syncopations is, as the liner notes put it, “a short, featherweight confection” that continues to delight audiences. This production is pure eye candy: The ragtime band of about a dozen players is onstage wearing costumes that are only slightly less extravagant and colorful than those of the dancers. The choreography is alert to the rhythmic essence of the musical sources, which include five pieces by Scott Joplin as well as material from James Scott, Joseph F. Lamb, Paul Pratt, Max Morath, Donald Ashwander, and Robert Hampton. There are many humorous elements and MacMillan is not above a cheap laugh, as in “The Alaskan Rag,” which pairs a very tall ballerina with a much shorter male dancer, whose enthusiasm makes up for his (intentional) terpsichorean shortcomings. The instrumental ensemble plays well, though without the last word in angular rhythmic snap—the syncopation part of Elite Syncopations seems underplayed. Robert Clark, the keyboardist and conductor, plays a standard grand piano but also an upright instrument that’s meant to provide a honky-tonk sonority. The latter sounds like a cheesy electronic fake to me, resembling a harpsichord in its upper register.

The Judas Tree, the choreographer’s final ballet, couldn’t be more different, MacMillan at his most disturbing. (A boxed warning on the back of the Blu-ray/DVD case alerts the potential viewer of “scenes of a violent and sexual nature” and, just last year, The Independent wondered if the work was “the most barbarous ballet of modern times.”) The setting is a claustrophobic, graffiti-marked construction site littered with the carcasses of ruined automobiles. Into this dangerous environment arrives a young, flirtatious woman who encounters the construction Foreman, his two friends, and a dozen workmen—who ultimately gang rape and murder her. Regretful, the Foreman hangs himself and the girl returns to life. Charges of misogyny have been heard since the 1992 premiere but the work is, overtly, an allegory that focuses on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus—represented, respectively, by the Foreman and one of the friends. (As far as the sole female character is concerned, the notes explain that the Gnostic Gospel depicts “the human soul as a woman who was chaste while in heaven, but a prostitute when on earth.”) MacMillan commissioned music from his countryman Brian Elias (b.1948), who produced a highly evocative, often intensely aggressive atonal score in which steel drums and other percussion have a dominant role. Predictably, the dancing is characterized by a testosterone-laden athleticism, though the pas de deux with the Foreman and the Woman is strikingly elegant, especially as presented by the fluently powerful Carlos Acosta and his compact partner, Leanne Benjamin. The audience looks pretty devastated when the lights come up at the conclusion of the half-hour work.

Last on the disc is Concerto of 1966, an abstract treatment of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (though the choreographer’s wife, Deborah, maintains in an “extra feature” that MacMillan didn’t believe any ballet could be truly abstract). The costumes are simple and there are no sets. The dancers’ movements are quite responsive to the spirit of the music—the songful central Andante supports an enthralling extended duet with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather, and the choreography is impressively attuned to the metric irregularities of the sprightly finale. Jonathan Higgins does a much-more-than-adequate job with the solo piano part and Dominic Grier ably conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra in Concerto. (Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s music director, has the duty for The Judas Tree.)

Sonics for The Judas Tree and Concerto, with the orchestra situated in the Royal Opera House pit, are excellent, especially the DTS-HD Master Audio multichannel version on the Blu-ray disc, which is satisfyingly spacious and detailed. The onstage band for Elite Syncopations is miked less successfully; one hears every note produced by the (excellent) trombonist, while the tuba sitting right next to him is indistinct. The picture quality of the BD is stunning, with remarkable edge definition. Each ballet is preceded by a short, skipable introduction that provides commentary from dancers, Monica Mason (the Royal Ballet’s current artistic director), Deborah MacMillan, and others. These, and the performances themselves, must be selected from the main menu—the disc won’t just play all the way through without the viewer’s intervention. No big deal.

Frank Behrens
Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinel, December 2010

The choreography of Kenneth MacMillan is featured in a triple bill on an Opus Arte DVD release of “Elite Syncopations,” “The Judas Tree” and “Concerto,” as performed by the Royal Ballet at London’s Royal Opera House.

“Elite Syncopations” is pure delight. Using ragtime works by Scott Joplin, Paul Pratt, James Scot, Joseph F. Lamb, Max Morath, Donald Ashwater and Robert Hampton, MacMillan has created a series of dances for solo, duet and ensemble turns with a great sense of humor.

A ragtime band is up stage center to enhance the effect.

The tight-fitting costumes are cartoon versions of the fancy dress worn by the ragtime crowd of just about 100 years ago, the steps are clever combinations of classical ballet and cakewalk, and everyone is having a great time.

The funniest is the duet set to “The Alaskan Rag,” in which the male dancer is never quite prepared to support—or even catch—his partner.

The third ballet on this disc, “Concerto,” is also a series of three dance episodes, but they are in a serious mood. Here the music is Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and the dancing tells no story but creates in motion the mood of the music.

Each costume is monochromatic and simply designed so that the dancing is “exposed.” It is quite lovely.

I have, as do many people, great problems with “The Judas Tree.” It is MacMillan’s last work and was designed to be “difficult” for audiences to accept. Although one can consider the scenario as a look into the male psyche, an allegory of betrayal as in the Judas and Christ story, it is really about nothing more than a gang rape and a killing of the victim.

I saw it on an older DVD, hated it, and could not bring myself to watch it on this one. So, pardon me if I simply warn my readers and let it go at that. The music is by Brian Elias.

“Syncopations” and “Judas” run just under 40 minutes; “Concert” runs 28 minutes. The program notes are not very detailed but do provide valuable background information about the three works. Each is given a brief, interesting spoken introduction.

So I highly recommend two-thirds of this disc and leave the middle work to the judgment and taste of the viewer.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, December 2010

This DVD is an excellent record of three of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s most iconic shorter ballets. Brought together on a single disc running just shy of two hours it also marks the strength in depth of the current Royal Ballet company—these performances were taped in March 2010. The disc is accompanied by a booklet with a good and informative essay on the ballets and their genesis by Mark Monahan which complements neatly the interesting but brief ‘extra’ interviews from performers and the creative team on the DVD itself. The soundtrack can be listened to in either standard 2 channel stereo or 5.1 DTS and it is filmed in strikingly clear High Definition. I have to admit that my television is not rigged for high quality audio but even in far from ideal conditions the Covent Garden orchestra and the recording sounded very fine indeed. The camerawork in all three ballets is unfussy and unobtrusive. There are occasional close-ups used to emphasise dramatic points in the narrative but in the main film director Ross MacGibbon is happy to keep to a low camera angle allowing a general ‘centre stalls’ view that is surely the right choice.

The programme selection is interesting in its diversity and breadth spanning as it does the 26 years from MacMillan’s debut triple bill for Deutsche Oper Ballet in 1966 with Concerto to his last work The Judas Tree of 1992—he died in October the same year. Between these two, and opening the DVD is his enduringly popular Elite Syncopations of 1974. Curiously, it is more the design and the use of the Ragtime music that resonates more strongly in the memory than MacMillan’s choreography. It is the piece that least engaged me here by some way. I say that in the full and certain knowledge that it was and remains enormously popular. As someone who works extensively in commercial theatre and musicals I find something irredeemably twee about ballet dancers—and a ballet audience!—‘letting their hair down’. I find little of it funny let alone sexy—as is alluded to in the introduction on the disc, just the reverse in fact. Too much is made of; “here we are, phenomenally trained performers doing funny walks and striking pantomime poses”. The onstage band play predictably well—the Covent Garden orchestra really is one of the very finest but I was surprised coming back to the score how dull the arrangements of the rags are. They are functional at best with little extra colour or humour coming through—quite how this kind of dance-band line-up could have been conceived without a banjo escapes me. Monahan points out in his note that Elite Syncopations was not the first ballet to exploit the ragtime craze. In London, the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) performed The Prodigal Son with the score arranged and conducted by Grant Hossack. Musically alone that is a superior piece of work to this and deserves revival. The choice of the rags here works well and gives enough variety to the score to support the various loosely narrative sections of the ballet. I would never claim to have any expertise at all regarding the minutiae of the art of choreography but I find the technical complexity of the piece at odds with the essential simplicity of the concept and the music. It makes for a virtuoso display which the company are well up to but instead of being relaxed and good natured I find the work frenetic with the dancers squeezing in one complex combination on top of another—to reverse the well-known phrase; more is less.

I enjoyed the other two works here far more. The Judas Tree is a dark, compact and powerful work. The synopsis is essentially simple, a lone woman—one assumes by design—enters a building site occupied by thirteen bored frustrated workmen. She is carried in swathed in a shroud—this being the first of many narratively head scratching moments. She toys with them individually and collectively in a display of casual provocativeness. The foreman of the gang vies for her attention with another more sensitive workman. A confrontation leads to the woman’s apparent death although she is revived by the gentle worker. In a fit of jealousy the foreman encourages the other men to gang rape her and then breaks her neck before encouraging the others to lynch her lover. The foreman then hangs himself and just as the curtain closes the woman returns resurrected—so it seems—again to assume a Madonna-like pose on a stage peopled by her and the two dead men. As Mark Monahan rightly says in his note—“we are light years from reality” and yet elements of the staging are deliberately naturalistic. The set is dominated by the Canary Wharf tower placing the work literally in modern day London. Originally this was choreographed on Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov. Here we have the brilliantly coquettish and lazily seductive Leanne Benjamin and the truly extraordinary and compelling Carlos Acosta. I suspect he can’t tie a shoelace without exuding powerfully macho charisma so this role in both acting and dancing terms suits him perfectly. Indeed the entire company of male dancers bring to the stage a sense of latent aggression and pent up violence that makes the ballet a compelling piece of theatre. Quite why Benjamin’s character should blithely run such risks is a mystery never explained but she proves herself a consummate actress as well as dancer. Her stamina is a minor miracle too—for the vast bulk of the ballet’s thirty five minutes she is actively involved yet never once does she seem to be the least bit fatigued. Benjamin, at forty-five is one of the oldest principal dancers in the company. She danced the role in the original production and worked with MacMillan so she brings a particular authority to the role. Indeed, it is her dancing and acting more than any of the men, excellent though they are, that resonates in the memory. It is in this piece that camera director MacGibbon makes telling use of close-ups to underline the emotions building in the protagonists. The complexity and challenging nature of MacMillan’s choreography seems to have more dramatic relevance here providing as it does a vehicle for posturing display as the men compete for the woman’s attention. Clearly this is intended as an allegory albeit in a ‘natural’ setting—Jock McFadyen’s design is strikingly effective and menacing. The original inspiration comes from the Gnostic Gospels and transports the three central characters of Judas (the foreman), his friend (Jesus), and the girl as a disturbing Madonna-cum-whore figure. That latter description is MacMillan’s not mine and in turn comes from these gospels where the human soul is portrayed as a woman who was chaste in heaven but a prostitute on earth. It’s a frankly misogynistic interpretation and explains the enduring notoriety of this work. If you can step away from that argument for a moment it does remain clear that for anyone interested in MacMillan’s body of work this is one of his most inventive, challenging and darkest works dealing as it does with different aspects of betrayal. It doesn’t seem quite right to say one ‘enjoyed’ this ballet but it certainly makes for a compelling and concentrated thirty five minutes. The music is an original score by Brian Elias that makes use of the full Covent Garden Orchestra. As one might expect it is an uncompromising contemporary work that helps drive the narrative very effectively. So effectively indeed that it is hard to imagine it with a life away from the theatre—but I imagine much the same was said of The Rite of Spring so I’m in no rush to make a judgement there! Allegory or not I do struggle a little trying to impose some kind of narrative logic on the proceedings. The ending of the ballet seems rather abrupt and ultimately struck me as the least convincing part of the work. Why the foreman should be so distraught when he first accidentally(?) kills the girl to then showing no relief when she revives to then actually deliberately killing her within another five minutes having callously supervised her raping but then being so horror struck to hang himself before she returns again—as a ghostly Madonna?—makes no dramatic sense at all even on the heightened reality of the ballet stage. It should be mentioned that this work won the 1992 Olivier Award for Best New Dance Work but is not for those who like their ballet pretty!

So to the final part of this triple bill. In the preface to the performance MacMillan’s widow said he rejected the idea of ‘abstract’ ballet feeling that as soon as two or more dancers interacted there was a human connection which removed any literal sense of abstraction. In deference to that view I will call this ballet non-narrative. The music is Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 deftly played here by soloist Jonathan Higgins but it would be hard to pretend that the musical performance was the reason to put on this DVD. As so often happens in ballet when the music becomes hostage to the choreography the essential character/tempo of the music is bent to the needs of the dancers. So the outer movements here both suffer from being a fraction slow. The good-humoured sparkle that bubbles up throughout this delightful work is dulled. The reason is the same as with the first ballet: MacMillan seems intent on cramming as many steps into any given phrase as possible. Visually this is a delight and very very complex and ‘busy’. Each movement makes a feature of different couples but the highlight is the central song-like Andante. Apparently inspired by watching Lynn Seymour practising at the barre this sequence contains the most overtly classical and consciously beautiful dancing on the DVD. Here the part is danced quite stunningly by Marianela Nuñez. Indeed, the entire work shows the strength in depth of both the principal dancers and the entire corps de ballet. After the heavy-handed humour of Elite Syncopations and the rather opaque narrative of The Judas Tree the utter simplicity of staging and just the sense of the joy of dancing comes as a real breath of fresh air. It is easy to understand why this is used as the programme finale. Again the sound and the camera work are admirably clear and unfussy.

As far as I am aware there are no other versions of Elite Syncopations or Concerto currently available on DVD and as mentioned these are significant works in the MacMillan canon so pretty much an obligatory purchase for admirers of his work. As a programme this strikes me as an excellent triple bill as diverse in its emotional range as it is accomplished in its technical excellence from every department. Experts on ballet will know far better than I whether this displays MacMillan’s talents and range to best effect.

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