On its march to a return to full glory, the Texas Ballet Theater sees two important signals of rebirth this spring.
One is the stalwart Swan Lake in May, which marks the return of live music. The ballet will be accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 2008, when the tanking economy dictated severe budget cuts. Live music was the biggest casualty.
Another important step forward is the company’s debut performance of a work by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, a director of London’s Royal Ballet and one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, although he may not be as recognized by American audiences as, say, Balanchine. TBT is staging his 1980 work about wartime loss, Gloria.
Artistic director Ben Stevenson has a long history with MacMillan, for whom he danced in the Royal Ballet. When Stevenson was at his previous post at the Houston Ballet, that company performed several of MacMillan’s works, introduced by Stevenson.
Now, he feels the time is right for Texas Ballet Theater to add MacMillan to its repertoire, which up to now, like many regional ballet companies, has largely focused on warhorses of the classic canon and Balanchine, along with Stevenson’s ballets.
“MacMillan has been a huge influence on me as a dancer and a choreographer,” Stevenson says. “He’s one of the three or four great choreographers, along with Balanchine, [John] Cranko and [Frederick] Ashton.”
He adds, “ Gloria is a good growing piece for the company.”
From all reports, Gloria is indeed a good fit for the company, and there’s no one better to confirm that than Lady Deborah MacMillan, a painter and MacMillan’s wife of 18 years until his sudden death, backstage at a performance, in 1992. He was 62.
“I watched a rehearsal this afternoon [Thursday, Feb. 20] with this very young company,” says Lady MacMillan, who is in Fort Worth for the first time, although she has visited Stevenson in Houston several times. “And they seem to absolutely understand what it’s about. It’s been taught very well, and Ben is obviously a fantastic director. What struck me this afternoon is this commitment to something they obviously understand.”
Stevenson and Lady MacMillan say Gloria is timely, too, considering America’s involvement in the Middle East for more than a decade and escalating turmoil in the world.
“War hasn’t finished,” MacMillan says. “Young men go off in an exalted fashion like into a football game, with this ‘rah-rah’ behind them. But women lose their husbands, their fathers, their brothers. It’s very poignant — it absolutely has relevance and will always continue to have relevance as long as mankind behaves in this ghastly fashion.”
For Stevenson, it’s a favorite work from one of his mentors, from whom he learned the importance of how dancers not only express themselves with technique and skill, but with expression in their faces, arms and hands.
“It was the way he could tell a story,” Stevenson says. “With the old masters, it was the old mime stuff, how they would say ‘you love me’ with these big gestures. [MacMillan] had something that was new in the way dancers would say things.”
MacMillan was interested in exploring the human psyche. Although he choreographed story ballets from literature — his Romeo and Juliet (1965) and three-act Manon (1974) are among his most popular pieces performed around the world — he was more interested in deeper psychology.
Following in Balanchine’s footsteps, he loved evening-length ballets, but he also favored longer works with more abstract narratives.
Unlike Balanchine, who created work on stark stages, MacMillan loved all the aspects of design that made ballet more theatrical. He even won an Olivier Award for his choreography of the National Theatre of London’s 1992 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which he choreographed just before his death (it opened six weeks later). It moved to Broadway in 1994, and he won a posthumous Tony Award for it.
That work is the most psychologically dark of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s big five, and MacMillan, who was attracted to such themes, was a perfect fit.
“He’d done a previous ballet, Song of the Earth, which is about loss and despair and also the things that pass with life as you get older,” Lady MacMillan says. “I think he was drawn to things that were more intense, and more revealing of relationships between people and expressions of people in difficult situations.
“Dance does transcend language and language barriers,” she adds. “You can take a story ballet, like Manon, which is set in 18th-century France, and you can take it to China or Korea, and you don’t need subtitles. Everyone understands it.”
Introducing North Texas audiences to MacMillan continues in the vein of what Stevenson has slowly done in the past few seasons, showing his audiences works by established choreographers like Val Caniparoli (Lambarena) and Glen Tetley (Voluntaries), dropping them into seasons that are dominated by popular story ballet titles like Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet (Stevenson’s) and Giselle.
With the Dallas leg of this program, which has the umbrella title of “Epic Masterpieces,” Texas Ballet Theater also returns to work by dancers who are expanding into choreography. Most notable of these during Stevenson’s decade-plus years here have been principal dancers Peter Zweifel and Carl Coomer (although last season, 2012-13, was devoid of such work).
As for work by nationally known choreographers who are currently active, Stevenson says he would rather mentor up-and-comers, the future of the art form.
“I think it’s great to do a Balanchine now and then,” Stevenson says. “But there are these great new choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon or Jiri Kylian, who are becoming famous. And what I’d like to do is find the new Christopher Wheeldon; I want to have the opportunity to produce really strong choreographic workshops and find these choreographers who can come in and work with us.”
He adds: “You’ll find the great companies — like Balanchine’s company [New York City Ballet] or the Royal Ballet with Ashton and MacMillan, or Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet — had a strong core of choreographers and they also brought people in on a regular basis. When you really know the dancers, you have a strong idea of what you want to do for them, and stretch them and pull them out. It’s easier to get them to do new [to the company] work.”
In other words, expect Stevenson to pepper future seasons — his contract will be up for renewal at the end of the 2015-16 season and he says he’ll have to see how he feels at that point as to whether he continues — with choreographers who will be new to local audiences, like MacMillan, and also emerging ones.
And to make sure the box office stays strong, the warhorses are likely to continue as well.
Stevenson is particularly excited about Swan Lake because of the live music, and it is something he hopes will continue for at least one or two productions each season for the foreseeable future.
The trend of canned music, spawned by financial difficulties with ballet companies across the world, is something nobody — not the dancers, not the choreographers, not the audiences — wants to see continue, he says.
“I tell dancers all the time to respect the orchestra,” says Lady MacMillan, “because they help you do what you do.”