Working on Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground with Yorke Dance Project: reflections on revival, reconstruction and performance

In 2016 I collaborated in the revival by contemporary dance company Yorke Dance Project of Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles, of which I had been an original cast member when it was made for our small independent ballet company Dance Advance in 1988. Following the success of Yorke Dance’s revival of this intense late work, Deborah MacMillan gave her blessing for the company to tackle reviving MacMillan’s Playground, an earlier and larger work.   Originally commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to be shown as part of an all MacMillan programme alongside Concerto and Elite Syncopations, it premiered on 24th August 1979 at the Edinburgh Festival. It was subsequently shown at Sadler’s Wells and on tour, possibly with further performances into 1980; but it did not remain in repertoire long.

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Marion Tait and dancers of Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet 1979

MacMillan had stepped down from his directorship of the Royal Ballet in 1977, thus giving himself time to concentrate on choreography and the headspace to tackle some uncompromising and difficult subjects. In 1978 as well as the full length Mayerling, he also created the darkly mysterious My Brother, My Sisters for John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet, which was taken into RB repertoire early in 1979. Around this time he was much struck by Blue Remembered Hills – Dennis Potter’s play filmed for television, in which adults portray children playing games which go wrong. MacMillan’s interest in family and childhood relationships was influenced both by his own memories of his mother who had suffered fits, and of his elder brother and sister; as well as his observations of his own daughter Charlotte, then aged 6 years, playing with her friends. Having been impressed by Gordon Crosse’s orchestral score, he began creating with an idea based on the Orpheus myth; but soon opted instead to develop his own narrative drawing on more personal concerns which included his own fears of madness and being sectioned. The resulting work has seemed to have something of the claustrophobic, enclosed ambience of his early work The Burrow.

How does one revive a work which has not been seen for 40 years? At the Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) conference on MacMillan held on March 16th 2019 company director Yolande Yorke-Edgell and I discussed some of the challenges in bringing a little known work back to life. Luckily the ballet had been recorded in Benesh Notation by Grant Coyle while the choreographer devised it. There were also two 1979 videos of distressingly poor quality, one taken in the rehearsal studio in the summer before the company’s holiday break, and one on stage at Sadler’s Wells in early autumn after the premiere. Not only was it hard to distinguish the dancers but there were evident discrepancies between versions, demonstrating how in the interim the work had evolved and changed in performance. Reconstruction of the ballet from the score and video sources involved notator Jane Elliott working closely with Yorke Dance rehearsal Director Edd Mitton in a huge painstaking labour. Original cast members Stephen Wicks, the “Vicar”, and myself as one of the ensemble and second cast “Mother”, joined with them to retrieve our deeply sunken memories of the piece and our embodied experience of working with MacMillan on it and in other ballets, bringing our instinctive responses to interpreting the material as it emerged again in a new generation of dancers.   We were all alive to the negotiation needed between these tenuous sources, trying to find a version that would best honour and truly reflect the work.

Jane Elliott teaching Playground from the Benesh notation score

But as well as striving for authenticity reconstruction for Yorke Dance inevitably meant substantial adaptation and accommodation to different circumstances. Playground, made for a full-scale ballet company, originally had a cast of 18. Yorke Dance could field a maximum ensemble of 8 dancers; so it was decided to supplement the professional dancers with vocational students in the ensemble. The work had been premiered in the Big Top and toured to large scale theatres, with a substantial set and costumes by designer Yolanda Sonnabend; Yorke Dance tour dates are mainly for intimate venues with auditoria often of a mere couple of hundred or less and small stages, thus necessitating a lighter more portable redesign by Charlotte MacMillan herself, and in some places a slimming down of dancer numbers.

Oxana Panchenko and Jonathan Goddard, Yorke Dance Project 2019

From a musical perspective too this revival was far from straight forward. SWRB performances had been accompanied by live performance of the score by the company’s full time orchestra, an option out of the question for a company of the scale and budget of Yorke Dance. A piano reduction had been prepared and used for original rehearsals, but although valuable as a working document for analysis and insight into musical structure it could hardly do justice in performance to the colourful orchestration with its vibrant use of percussion, not least clapping by both musicians and dancers. A recorded score of the full version used for the ballet did not exist; it was thus necessary to create one digitally, a work of miraculous technical sophistication. A residual problem was the question of how then to synchronise dance sequences involving live clapping with recorded music, often with different metric patterns and without the intermediary of an orchestral conductor.

And then the dancing itself. Playground incorporates both naturalistic and gestural movement with balletic solos and pas de deux. SWRB was a classical company; even MacMillan’s most experimental and expressionist works were grounded in his innate understanding of ballet technique, and made use of the skills and mastery afforded to dancers used to working on a daily basis on pointe. In rehearsal it became apparent how some of Playground’s danced passages, even in their distortions and characteristic moves of falling back or off balance, were rooted in a confident mastery of ballet technique, and needed to be approached as such. Although its members have had extensive classical ballet as part of their training Yorke Dance is essentially a contemporary company dancing mainly in bare feet; the company’s director Yolande Yorke-Edgell’s work is flavoured by her experience of working with contemporary masters such as Robert Cohan, still in his nineties making new work for the company, Bella Lewitsky and Richard Alston. The Yorke dancers have impressed immensely by their professionalism and ability to encompass within one programme such different movement styles and genres of work.

Because of the gestural and naturalistic movement content of Playground it was very possible for female members of the ensemble, and even the powerful figure of the Mother originally created by Siobhan Stanley and recreated here by Yorke Dance’s own authoritative Freya Jeffs, to eschew pointe shoes without undue alteration of the dance material. But pointe shoes were essential for the central figure of the “Girl with make-up” and the convoluted and extraordinary content of the two central pas de deux, original created for the expressive lines of tiny poignant Marion Tait with strong and experienced partner Desmond Kelly. To embody Tait’s role the company has brought in as guests two adventurous classical dancers capable also of integrating into performance of the company’s new Cohan work, Communion; Oxana Panchenko whose wide experience has included working for the BalletBoyz and Michael Clark, and Romany Pajdak, granted occasional leave of absence from the Royal Ballet to work with Yorke Dance. Kelly’s role as the Youth is shared by passionate company dancer Jordi Calpe Serrats and award winning guest Jonathan Goddard.

Marion Tait and Desmond Kelly SWRB 1979

For the student dancers a particular challenge was the need to be “present” in performance for a very long time without apparently doing very much. Enclosed by the forbidding wire fencing of an urban playground, the whole cast is on stage for the entire length of the work’s 27 minutes. Although many of the original dancers were young when it was made, all had experience of being on stage in large classical ballets; and some also in longer MacMillan works where the corps de ballet were not necessarily always a uniform dancing ensemble but a more naturalistic crowd whose members responded individually to the action. This work presents a challenge of stagecraft, the ability to sustain character and atmosphere without being too busy and distracting from the central development of relationships between the key characters; an exercise in the selection of telling detail and the value of stillness. MacMillan’s choreographic design has a strong almost cinematic sense of foreground and background; as his biographer Jann Parry describing Mayerling puts it: “Without being able to resort to close-ups, MacMillan knew how to focus an audience’s interest on the important characters. The minor ones, true to the Royal Ballet’s acting tradition, played out their sub-stories on the periphery.” (Parry 2009 p499)

Another dilemma for the revival team was how much to forewarn the dancers as to the nature of the piece. Ever inquiring and curious, MacMillan regularly drew choreographic inspiration and influence from other sources; theatre, TV drama, history, even current affairs. But he didn’t discuss or reveal his sources or talk about them in the Playground rehearsal room, or, apart from a brief quote, give credit to them in programme notes. I speculate that this may have been in part a shrewd protective policy for the avoidance of being held to any acknowledged sources and judged against them in a very literal way; his method rather to absorb them and let their influences mix and emerge, leaving him free to develop story line or character, pick and choose what to draw on and what not. He did not tell the dancers what Playground was about – this was apparently also true of My Brother, My Sisters before Playground. In the early stages he himself conceivably didn’t know how the work was going to develop and finish. We were not told until well into making the work that we were not children by which time a certain character and environment had formed. But how to respect this method working in hindsight, when we all know what the outcome will be? How much to tell the cast about what will happen in the piece? How much to make explicit the shared but unspoken communal knowledge of its original cast? Here the impossibility of recreating the original working situation involved in the making of a work in all its unknowing emergence calls for sensitive handling, if the cast are to be able to discover authentic and fresh performances of their own rather than dutifully copy the past.

Stephen Wicks and Susie Crow sharing memories of Playground in rehearsal

In coaching, where to draw the line between accurate following of the choreographic text as manifested in original interpretations, and allowance for the individuality of today’s performers? MacMillan was a keen observer of people, selecting his casts for particular idiosyncracies, and drawing perceptively on their personal and dancerly characteristics which remain embedded in the choreography, making his use of balletic material rich and strange. A subtle work of interpretation is required to decipher this from the inevitably drier documentation of the notation; in coaching Stephen’s and my knowledge of the original dancers and rehearsal situation could perhaps shed useful light on the very real characters behind the roles and the qualities informing their dancing to help new casts build their own equally powerful interpretations.

Not only did the working circumstances of this remounting differ radically from when it was first made; but also the cultural climate and environment of its reception. When first performed, although some audiences were impressed by its powerful and disturbing vision, others were repelled by its unflinching exposure of a subject little spoken of, and its refusal as a ballet to be conventionally beautiful. Perhaps driven by concerns about scaring away those audiences coming to the ballet primarily for entertainment rather than uncompromising and thought-provoking experience, this uncomfortable work was allowed to fall out of repertoire. Nowadays with greater public consciousness and understanding of mental health issues and bullying it seems that audiences are more ready to be confronted and moved by its vision of an enclosed community with its games, absurd rules, role playing, rivalries and cruelties. Showing it in more intimate settings has arguably heightened its impact, with smaller, closer audiences almost included in its claustrophobic environment, physically aware of the intensity and detail of the performers’ lived experience at close quarters. Working on this timely revival has reconfirmed my admiration for MacMillan’s great abilities as a ground breaking choreographer, his ability to use balletic material to tell powerful stories, his bold expansion of the possibilities of the form, and his skill in drawing out dancers to create unforgettably vivid characters and situations.

Yorke Dance Project’s revival of Playground premiered at Pavilion Dance South West in Bournemouth on 31st January 2019.  Following a tour with performances in Winchester, Barnes, Leeds, Frome, Banbury, Salisbury and Swindon as part of the Company’s Twenty: Anniversary Programme, it will also be performed in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House as part of the company’s season there from 14th to 17th May 2019; further details here.

Susie Crow

3rd May 2019

With grateful thanks to Pari Naderi for allowing use of her photographs of Yorke Dance’s revival of Playground in rehearsal and performance.

Parry, Jann (2009)  Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan  London, Faber & Faber

Find out more about Yorke Dance Project here

 

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