Feature: Book review

Wednesday 30 September 2009

!! Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan by Jann Parry ***Faber and Faber Ltd* ***758pp. £30.00. Hardback*

Reviewed by Graham Watts

Introverted and frequently uncommunicative, Kenneth MacMillan’s life was anything but an open book. He was as deeply disturbed for much of his career as the Outsiders who were so often the centrepieces of his expressionist, dark ballets. He disliked giving interviews and whenever he did the record is dominated by prevarication, inaccuracy and information withheld. MacMillan started his own memoir but was so dissatisfied with what he wrote that he got caught in a cycle of scratching out sentences and starting again.

Beyond any doubt, Kenneth MacMillan was one of two British choreographers who belong amongst the best the world has ever known – the other being Frederick Ashton, who was variously mentor, friend and rival to the up-and-coming MacMillan. It’s therefore surprising that 18 years after his death, there has been no major posthumous biography about the man and his work and nothing since Edward Thorpe’s _Kenneth MacMillan: The Man and the Ballets (_1985), which this author acknowledges steered her research on this book.

This first complete biography of MacMillan has been well worth the wait. His complex and mostly tortured life is forensically and intimately portrayed by critic and dance writer Jann Parry, in a mammoth book (758pp including appendices) which is hard to put down. It’s a labour of love, having taken the author a decade to write, but she has been guided by an unconstrained access to MacMillan’s papers and letters and a free hand from his widow and daughter. Parry tackles her Herculean Labour with the impartiality of the investigative, current affairs journalism from which she came to dance writing; and in particular, she doesn’t shy away from portraying MacMillan as a man who could be rude, morose and manipulating.

There is little sympathy for him in the sad, often adversarial interlude when he left Britain to become the artistic director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin (1966- 1970). Away from the studio he was a chainsmoking, alcohol-fuelled and overbearing influence on his dancers, extending to crude attempts to control their private lives. Angry at her rebelliousness, MacMillan refused to talk directly to Lynn Seymour, the ballerina who had been his muse for several years, even whilst making work on her in Berlin.

Like so many of his contemporaries in the ’60s and ’70s, MacMillan accessed psychoanalysis; sometimes having sessions on a daily basis (oddly, many of his dancers and friends consulted the same analysts). He had periods with both Freudian and Jungian practitioners and their theories were bound to place the causal emphasis for MacMillan’s troubled psyche on the strength of his infantile relationship with his mother Edith, and the fact of her early death preventing him from being naturally weaned away from this dependency.

He had been breast-fed until the age of four, was fascinated to walk in on his parents having sex, aged around six and was unquestionably his mother’s favourite child. When she died, the young Kenneth was away at school as a wartime evacuee, and on his return home, his father, William, ordered him to kiss the cold corpse on the lips and told him not to cry. Throughout his life, MacMillan told everyone that he was only 11 when his mother died, whereas it was easy for Parry to deduce that he was a year older than this lifelong recollection. He appears to have wanted to maximise the impact of his mother’s death by making himself appear younger at the time.

The likelihood of childhood abuse is hinted at without any certain evidence but MacMillan later told his wife that his brother had involved him in ‘activities about which he felt ashamed and resentful’. An ambiguous sexuality until middle-age, aligned to the fact that dance was a wholly alien occupation to his father and brother, probably explains the break that he makes with his remaining family from an early age. When his favourite sister, Jean, was killed alongside her husband, in a car crash in 1969, he was unable to attend her funeral, which deeply offended his remaining siblings. By this time, however, he was no longer a part of their lives in any meaningful sense.

Parry’s account of the man is always fascinating but it is the finely detailed description of his choreography that turns this book into a treasure. MacMillan made more than 80 works, some of which are masterpieces that will be performed for as long as there is ballet: Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Song of the Earth, The Rite of Spring, *Gloria*, for example. Many more, however, have fallen by the wayside. *Laiderette* – one of his earliest successes was lost in 1967 because the taped music had deteriorated to an unacceptable level; MacMillan’s Agon survived for less than 20 performances; and *Cain and Abel* was one of several ballets from his German period to be quickly consigned to history. With a critic’s eye, Parry reinvigorates many of these works on the page, using contemporary dance criticism, interviews and other accounts to give flavour and understanding to both long-lost and familiar ballets. Her painstaking, chronological analysis of every MacMillan work is backed up by a detailed appendix of his entire choreography and an excellent, authoritative background on sources and recordings.

I was, however, surprised to find so many typos and an occasional error in a work of this seriousness Parry claims that *Romeo & Juliet* (1965) was only the fourth three-act British ballet in the Royal Ballet’s history (after Ashton’s Cinderella (1948) and *Sylvia* (1952) and Cranko’s The Prince of the Pagodas(1957). This bald fact seems to overlook *Ondine* – a three act ballet made by Ashton and premiered in 1958. The crudeness of the publisher’s eagerness to describe MacMillan as ‘a real life Billy Elliot’ in their blurb is also grating. Why is every young boy who wants to dance a ‘Billy Elliot’, even when, in this case, his adolescence precedes the film of that name by a good 40 years?

These minor irritations cannot detract from a truly excellent biography. It reminds us of MacMillan as a young dancer, characterised by long legs, an elegant line and good jumping but whose career was cut short (at just 22) by paralysing stage fright; it provides a detailed analysis and explanation for the expressionist, “kitchen-sink” realism of his ballets; and an understanding of how he found a happier life in the last 20 years, to be relatively settled with a wife and child. The tragedy was that the unhappiness and alcoholism of his earlier years contributed to an ill health that was to end his life so early.

Perhaps the most riveting part of a fascinating book is the brief four page prelude that describes the circumstances of his death, alone in a backstage corridor whilst one of his greatest works, *Mayerling*, was enjoying the first night of a revival at the Royal Opera House. The inexplicable decision of the then Chief Executive to announce MacMillan’s death to an audience of thousands of strangers, before it had been certified and before his teenage daughter could be reached with the news, speaks volumes about the priorities of the place at that time. Lady MacMillan had to leave her husband’s body to rush home to tell her daughter before she heard it on the news.

Jann Parry has written a most marvellous, informative and enjoyable book, which exposes so much new knowledge and insight about the man and his ballets; it is a tour de force that joins the premier league of dance biographies.

More on Different Drummer

‘Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s new biography of the choreographer, is at once an assiduously detailed history of the man and a psychological deconstruction of his work.’ Luke Jennings, Observer, 20 Sep 09

‘Parry’s great achievement is to explain why, despite all his flaws, generations of dancers wanted to work with this exacting choreographer and why his ballets still matter.’ Sarah Crompton, Telegraph, Sep 09

‘There are also intriguing sidelights in Parry’s narrative, not least the detailing of MacMillan’s relationship with the politics of the Royal Opera House, whose board was less than supportive when support was vital to him. Different Drummer is a remarkable study in the nature of a powerful creative talent.’ Clement Crisp, FT, Sep 09

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