Scottish Ballet's extremes, from Kenneth MacMillan to Jorma Elo
As a self-described “Royal Ballet baby,” Scottish Ballet artistic director Ashley Page got the chance to personally know the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, former artistic director of London’s Royal Ballet and choreographer of “Song of the Earth,” which will be on the program when Scottish Ballet performs at the Music Center Friday through next Sunday.
MacMillan, who served as artistic director from 1970 to 1977, stepped down to become the company’s principal choreographer. Page joined the company in 1976, so he came to know MacMillan, who died in 1992, more as a choreographer than a company chief.
“Kenneth was a quite extreme personality,” Page says. “He wasn’t very happy being a director, and after I joined, he withdrew to concentrate on choreography. He was a bit of a tortured soul. It was reflected in quite a lot of the work that he made, the subjects he chose.”
MacMillan’s dark side is definitely reflected in “Song of the Earth,” Page says. The work, performed to Mahler’s song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,” based on 8th century Chinese poems, is, according to Page, about accepting death as a part of life. “There is a dancer who binds the whole dance together -- it’s over an hour long -- who is the messenger of death, “ Page says.
The mournfulness, he adds, also comes from Mahler. “It’s very much in the Chinese text, and it affected Mahler deeply,” Page says. “While writing it, he had become aware of his heart disease, and his daughter had just died.”
That being said, Page hastens to add that the work is not morbid, even with death stalking the action. “Death is a benign presence … It’s an optimistic piece with some dark elements,” he says. “Some of it is very light, to do with youth and beauty and drinking songs.”
Contrasting tones are also the name of the game in choreographer Jorma Elo’s new work “Kings 2 Ends,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and minimalist Steve Reich.
What, Culture Monster asked him recently, does this cryptic title mean?
Elo called the question a tricky one. “It was hard to make the title because the ballet was really developing into directions I didn’t think it would go when I was in the process of making it,” he said.
"The ballet had some sort of royalty to me, even though you don’t see a royal couple,” Elo said, sort of explaining the “Kings” part. “It also had two very different parts, and until the very last moment I didn’t know which part should end the ballet. It was kind of a puzzle until the end, so the title is a little bit of a puzzle. It is just a title that felt right at the moment.”
What are these different parts? The answer is in the music. “These two pieces are from very different periods and very different dynamics,” Elo said. “One is very ‘city’ -- hectic music, nervous music from modern day. The other is a very joyful, romantic way of looking at life and music.”
Which of the “2 Ends” actually ended up ending the piece? You’ll have to go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to find out, because Culture Monster was so intrigued – and perhaps puzzled -- by the concept that we forgot to ask.
-- Diane Haithman
Photos: The Scottish Ballet's “Song of the Earth," top, and "Kings 2 Ends." Credit: Andrew Ross