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Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, January 2012

Elite Syncopations…is easily one of the most attractive and fun-filled ballets ever created, and the performance here gets high marks on all counts.

The Judas Tree…on whatever level you choose to view it, it is thought-provoking and very well-danced.

The last piece here, Concerto…is my favorite. Purely abstract and highly colorful…in a remarkably brilliant tour-de-force that reads each of Shostakovich’s phrases as breath to the body, wonderfully apt and fitting, and lusciously rendered in superb choreography.

The Royal Ballet, with its close association with Macmillan, renders a superb tribute to its former director on a highly-desirable disc recorded wonderfully and in resplendent high-def video, nicely captured by sensitive and appropriate camerawork. © 2012 Audiophile Audition Read complete review

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.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, January 2011

The three ballets by Kenneth MacMillan offer an extremely wide range of musical composition and dance performances. The Elite Syncopations is of strong, really strong immediate appeal to all who have viewed it with me-even those who are not ballet or dance lovers usually! The female dancers are simply very attractive with very vivid costumes to accentuate their beauty. Women are as impressed as the men watching their performances. The music, mainly by Scott Joplin with ragtime piano playing is appealing in the extreme and so are the male dancers’ striking costumes. This ballet with excellent audio quality easily receives my highest possible recommendation; no more needs to be said. The other two ballets are very different than this one and from each other. The Judas Tree is 180 degrees removed from the Elite Syncopations. It is almost starkly and certainly powerfully performed by mainly male performers. There is no beauty in this almost oppressive composition of dance accompanying music by Brian Elias. It demands attention though possibly nothing much more from many viewers. This is MacMillan’s last work for stage. The third and last ballet presented here is accompanying Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, specifically a pair of allegros flanking a lyrical andante movement. There are four dance couples, one of which is a traditional lead couple. There is no plot though the attractive music and outstanding ballet dances have long made this a ballet favorite. As with the other two, the audio quality is simply excellent with no negatives though not quite the almost instant projecting appeal of the first.

Lawrence Devoe, December 2010

The Performance

Kenneth MacMillan choreographed Three Ballets: Elite Syncopations, The Judas Tree, Concerto between 1966 and 1992, the year of his untimely death. Macmillan directed the Royal Ballet for a decade and stepped down to become its principal choreographer. Besides the three ballets on this disc, he is well known for his adaptation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, performed by dance legends, Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn, a video that I have watched for many years on videotape. These three ballets were recorded in performance, March 2010 at the Royal Opera House, Convent Garden, and feature the RB’s principal corps de ballet. They present significant contrasts in music and dance styles, from rag-time (Elite Syncopations), classical piano concerto (Concerto), to edgy modernism (The Judas Tree).

Concerto (1966), the earliest ballet, is also the most traditionally choreographed in three movements corresponding to those of the Shostakovich piano concerto. It is an abstract recital with no story line-just elegant and disarmingly simple dance routines. The first and second are elegant pas de deux, the third an ensemble piece.

Elite Syncopations (1974) is a set of short dance routines based on the music of Scott Joplin and his rag-time contemporaries. The dancers in fanciful fin du siècle costumes alternate ensemble pieces with those featuring the principals. Highlights include Sarah Lamb and Valery Hristov in “Bethena,” and Steven McRae’s “Friday Night.” The light-heartedness of this program is ever present and it is obvious that a good time was had by all.

The Judas Tree (1992) is a raw, tense piece with violent undertones set to a stark contemporary score. The gritty construction scene is populated by male dancers until a single ballerina enters the scene. The some-times violent action depicted is not for the faint of heart. This ballet projects a dark fascination that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Video Quality

The videography ranges from excellent (Elite Syncopations) to stunning (Concerto). Ballet, even in its slower dances, is constantly in motion, challenging the cameramen to maintain proper focus. Fortunately, they are consistently aimed right where you want it — on the dancers. Unlike other lively art forms, ballet dancers are not only graceful human beings, but beautiful to behold. The camera work treats these performers extremely well as the screen captures attest.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack in DTS-HD-Master Audio is variable. There is a stage band in Elite Syncopations which sounds a little distant; the pit orchestra in the other two selections is well recorded. As a warning note, the stage microphones do pick up a good bit of noise generated by the dancers’ footwork, something that you might not notice in the theater. The surround channels convey a good bit of hall ambience, successfully conveying a you-are-there perspective.

Supplemental Materials

In a somewhat unusual move, the three episodes’ informative materials are introductions to the actual performances. They feature interviews with some of the dancers, Monica Mason the RB’s director and MacMillan’s widow but all are quite brief and do little to illuminate the otherwise excellent productions.

The Definitive Word


This is the first Blu-ray offering of these three MacMillan ballets presented by one of the world’s premier corps du ballet. High definition camera work confers significant benefits to ballet performances. You will marvel as these stunning dancers handle some truly challenging choreography without missing a step. While the ballets can be watched in any order, I would recommend viewing them chronologically to see the progression of MacMillan’s choreography over 25 years. Balletomanes of all ages will enjoy this BBC/Opus Arte program, although I would exercise some parental guidance for The Judas Tree. All in all, this is how ballet videos should be made.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, November 2010

What could have been scattered turns out to be another great Blu-ray in Three Ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, which is really three strong, separate programs from the Royal Ballet that all work exceedingly well. Loaded with energy and talent, the dancers deliver Scott Joplin’s Elite Syncopations (1974), Brian Elias’ Judas Tree (1992) and Dmitry Shostakovich’s Concerto (1966). The money is also in this set of productions and the color makes it one of the best classical Blu-ray demos to date.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

However many times I see Elite Syncopations, I guess I will never tire of its colourful and naughty humour. Set to the Piano Rags of Scott Joplin and others in a version for jazz band, it forms part of three ballets choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan in a disc of very differing moods. Headed by Sarah Lamb and Mara Galeazzi, the music ranges from the seductive waltz, Bethena, to the energetic Hot House Rag, stopping off along the way to the zany fun of the tall female and her short male partner with its obvious complications. Yet it is Ian Spurling’s gorgeous costumes that are as sexually provocative as they are comical and put the final icing on the cake. By total contrast MacMillan’s staging of Brian Elias’s music for The Judas Tree, is deeply disturbing. The young female virgin is captured and brought to a factory building site to be raped, the site foreman believing he would be the first to take her, but discovers that it is his friend who she is flirting with. In a fit of temper he kills her and encourages all the other men on the site to rape her body, only to discover that she was still alive. He then breaks her neck, and with a Judas kiss, indicates the friend who the gang should kill. Shocked by all he has done he hangs himself. The famous dancer, Carlos Acosta, takes the foreman, but it is Leanne Benjamin, whose body is so contorted and thrown around like a rag-doll, you fear for her safety, and she deserves all the audience plaudits. Then finally to McMillan’s elegance in Concerto to the music of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto staring Marianela Nunez. Bright primary colours against a plain backdrop, the mixture of athleticism and refinement comes as a perfect conclusion. Filmed at the Royal Opera House in March 2010, it is a stunning release, immaculately captured, with first-class sound quality, the mix of close-up and distance just about ideal. It also comes in standard DVD on OA1038D.

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