Mary Brennan

SOME ballets bring a story on-stage, other ballets arrive with a history attached to them – Scottish Ballet’s revival of the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) has both, at its heart.

Story first. In The Ice Maiden (by Hans Christian Andersen), a mother is battling through a snowstorm with her babe in arms. A Fairy, glacial and unrelenting, watches the mother die, then seals the baby’s future with a kiss. The boy survives, grows up, meets a girl – then, on the day of his wedding, the Fairy unexpectedly returns and claims him with another kiss that freezes him in her power for eternity. His fiancee is left alone, vainly searching and bereft. This is not, by any stretch, a happy ending: not even for the possessive Fairy – the lad can never really love her, his feelings are entombed in permafrost.

The history of MacMillan’s one-act ballet has, over the years, acquired its own hints of that supernatural kiss being more of a curse than a blessing. It was actually Stravinsky’s music, rather than Hans Christian Andersen’s darkly cruel tale, that lured MacMillan into creating Le Baiser de la fée in 1960. Like other choreographers before him, however, MacMillan discovered that the score was more attuned to Stravinsky’s admiration for Tchaikovsky and his music, than to Andersen’s scenario – the two sources were not an immediate, nor an easy fit, although the resulting ballet contains some thrilling dance that points to future innovative directions in MacMillan’s later works.

The London premiere in April 1960 was well received, critically. Come August, and the Royal Ballet packed up the substantial set (by Kenneth Rowell), and brought it North to perform Baiser at that year’s Edinburgh International Festival. During its opening night there, part of the scenery collapsed, narrowly missing one of the dancers in what would have been, dare we say it, more of a Glasgow Kiss than a fairy’s kiss. The incident seemed to highlight unforeseen difficulties. Even though Rowell’s designs had been hailed as a tremendously brooding, dark and threatening antidote to the usual pretty-pretty view of ballet- fairyland, the set was so complex it proved well night impossible to pair Baiser with any of the company’s existing repertoire pieces. The production was mothballed after only 33 performances.

There was a fleeting re-appearance, with new designs, in 1986 but thereafter Baiser became something of an unapproachable Sleeping Beauty – which is why Scottish Ballet’s revival of it is an especially welcome way of marking the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s death. Not only will Baiser be part of the company’s forthcoming Stravinsky double bill but it will be performed at the Royal Opera House in London as part of October’s MacMillan Festival there, the first time Scottish Ballet has every appeared on the Covent Garden stage.

So, another chapter is being added to the history of this fascinating ballet, and for reasons that are both personal and professional, Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson is simply delighted. “I can’t really claim the credit for doing Baiser,” he laughs. “I was guided by Deborah (Lady MacMillan) who asked me to take a look at it, see it I thought it was something the company would be interested in. I was already thinking of reviving my own Stravinsky ballet, the Rite of Spring, and there it was: a double bill that I think tells a very similar story, but in two very different ways and with very different movement vocabularies.”

Hampson’s Rite of Spring - seen briefly during the Edinburgh International Festival 2013 - is an intense, aggressive and radical response to a piece of music that once outraged audiences, but a century or so later has become familiar to the point of being hackneyed. Hampson said at the time that he wanted to make Rite feel relevant and genuinely shocking again. To do so, he pared it down to a three-hander featuring two brothers and a woman, who is more of an emblematic ideal, than a flesh and blood siren. Sibling rivalry morphs into something that is now the stuff of 21st century headlines: the brutal torture of prisoners by military jailers with a rigidly opposing ideology. Principal dancer Christopher Harrison, reprising his 2013 role as the bruisingly violent elder brother, reckons that the disquieting political overtones will be even more obvious to today’s audience. “For me, I feel this character has become instantly recognisable because of what’s in the news. We know about torture, killings, innocent people dying... That has really become part of the character for me, part of how the choreography now feels - though dancing it hasn’t got any easier, physically or mentally!”

But how does Rite connect with Baiser? Hampson sums that up succinctly by saying “they both are occasioned by what I call “disruptors”. In Rite, it’s this elusive woman who appears and causes the two brothers to split apart, take opposite sides in whatever political struggle is going on in their outside world. In Baiser, the Fairy arrives and actually destroys people’s lives: she doesn’t save the mother, she takes the young man away from his bride, and she leaves the Bride heart-broken and without the happy future she envisaged. You tend to think of female characters as givers - life givers in particular. Here, these characters are both deadly in their disruptive effects - so in a way what audiences will see are two very different ways of telling a similar story, which I think will add to the intensity of both ballets.”

As a note of reassurance for audiences - especially those at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where the 1960 set was itself disruptive - Hampson has had Baiser redesigned by Gary Harris. “Gary did the designs for my Hansel & Gretel here,” says Hampson. “He knew Kenneth and Deborah (MacMillan) very well, he notated Kenneth’s ballets in Benesh and staged several of them all over the world and - really important for us - he knows what touring a work is all about. So his design is far less clunky than the original. He’s created more of a world through a certain kind of landscape, and he’s using a photograph that Deborah took: it’s a view of the Andes from above - not something you would usually see and so it creates a kind of unknown place that is between realistic and abstract, and not dogmatically literal. It allows the choreography space to breathe - and, for me, this is really special choreography. I’ve been watching it in the studio, and it’s as if I’m seeing all the starting points for what was to come in Kenneth’s work. Those pas-de-deux - already making challenging demands on the dancers - are the beginnings for the later pas-de-deux in Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Mayerling and all his greats. And I feel so very proud at how our dancers are rising to those challenges, bringing this early MacMillan alive again - I feel as if I’m seeing a young Kenneth, exploring classical ballet, and shaping work that has certainly had an impact on my career.”

This is where the personal connection arrives. Hampson, aged only 9, first encountered MacMillan when he was a torch-bearer in Romeo and Juliet. “That was in Manchester,” he says, before listing the other occasions when - as a graduating student at White Lodge - he was coached by MacMillan, had his own (teenaged) choreography awards presented by MacMillan and nowadays can revisit those times through his ongoing friendship with Lady MacMillan.

Meanwhile, in the studio, principal dancers Sophie Martin and Constance Devernay are both rehearsing the Fairy’s icy kiss on their respective partners. Watching, encouraging and fine-tuning every move is Baiser’s notator and repetiteur, Diana Curry. “It’s a joy to see this choreography come alive again on young bodies,” she says. “The challenge, for me, is to find just the right balance between being true to the 1960 choreography, while allowing these lovely dancers to find their own expressive individuality. Times have changed since Svetlana Beriosova danced the Fairy and Lynn Seymour was the Bride - today’s dancers jump higher, their legs go up higher, they’ve trained differently. Reining that back, asking them to mimic those original dancers would be totally wrong, however. We want this to be a real revival - a tribute to Kenneth that shows today’s audiences how brilliant was he was in 1960.”

Scottish Ballet’s Stravinsky double bill opens on Friday October 6 at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and then tours.

The company’s London performances of Le Baiser de la fée are on Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 October at the Royal Opera House.

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