Three Ballets by Kenneth MacMillan = Elite Syncopations (Scott Joplin); The Judas Tree (Brian Elias); Concerto (Shostakovich), Blu-ray (2010)
Conductor: Robert Clark/ Barry Wordsworth/ Dominic Grier
Performers: Artists and Orchestra of the Royal Ballet
Producer: James Whitbourn
Director: Ross MacGibbon
Studio: Opus Arte BD 7074 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i Full HD Color
Audio formats: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: German, French, Spanish
Extras: Introductions by Deborah MacMillan
Length: 114 minutes
Scottish-born choreographer Kenneth MacMillan (1929-92) was artistic director of the Royal Ballet from 1970-77, though he held other positions as well—he directed the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1966 to 1969. MacMillan’s work helped solidify his position as one of the premier choreographers in the world, and he was not afraid to take on controversial social issues in pieces that displayed a dark and sometimes forbidding side, often engaging in sexuality and the seedier side of human nature. At the same time he was capable of creating works of great wit and humor. On this tribute video we get examples of his many-sided explorations into life and its varied strata of emotions.
Elite Syncopations is a product of 1974, the same time, for those old enough to remember, when movies like The Sting made their appearance, and the several albums of Joshua Rifkin featuring the rediscovered music of Scott Joplin came into the public eye (The Red Back Book with Gunther Schuller’s New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble was another huge seller). MacMillan, who until that point had been occupied with some fairly dark and heavy productions, embraced the notion of a virtuoso and purely entertaining romp using ragtime, and this was the result. The piece is for 12 dancers and company, designed specifically to show off his artists. It 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 shows the flip side of MacMillan’s psyche, and to the more common dark one. The commissioned music by Brian Elias is a rather brutal score, one that serves the dancing well but also leaves a severe psychological impression. Set in London’s East End, the action revolves around a working foreman who interacts with a virginal woman he seems to think his own, aggravated by her flirtatious demeanor to the point of turning on her completely, encouraging the rest of the men to gang-rape her (in a particularly violent manner, even for ballet) and then breaking her neck. Afterwards he persuades the men to turn against his friend by kissing him on the cheek (Judas-like), whereupon the girl comes back to life after he hangs himself. Not easy stuff, and one that MacMillan had a hard sell with (it was to be his last piece) because of its gritty realism, yet the piece is obviously allegorical as there are no explanations given regarding any of the rather absurd setup and premises. On whatever level you choose to view it, it is thought-provoking and very well-danced.
The last piece here, Concerto, based on Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, is my favorite. Purely abstract and highly colorful, the work uses three pairs of couples, one for each movement, 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 work has been an audience favorite ever since its 1966 premiere.
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.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.