Kenneth MacMillan: Building from the Highlights

Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo:  Johan Persson

Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo: Johan Persson

‘Sex and death. That’s what I do.’

I recently saw an excellent documentary about the choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan (BBC 4, ‘Ballet’s Dark Knight’).

Between 1953 and 1992 MacMillan created over sixty ballets for the Royal Ballet and other companies around the world: full-length repertoire classics like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Manon’ and ‘Mayerling’; shorter gems like ‘The Invitation’, ‘Elite Syncopations’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Song of the Earth’. His work is characterised by big human themes, psychological insight and dramatic physicality; by high lifts, expressive gestures and raw emotion.

Born to working class parents in 1929, MacMillan grew up in Great Yarmouth. When he was evacuated to Retford in Nottinghamshire during the war, he was introduced to ballet by a local dance teacher. He took to it immediately, and at 15 joined the Sadler’s Wells School. He was subsequently enrolled in the company, but suffered stage fright, and when he was 23 he stopped dancing.

MacMillan turned to choreography.

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'I prefer to explore the human psyche. I try to make people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the theatre.’

He set about enlisting classical ballet technique to address contemporary themes. His work explored young love, identity crises, sexual abuse and suicide; corrupt courts, war damage, drugs and depression.

‘I am very interested in people, and I wanted to portray the dilemma of people living and working and being with each other. I wanted to show that kind of thing in ballet.’

Above all MacMillan sought emotional truth and authenticity. He was instinctively at odds with the ballet world of the time; with its glamour and romance, fairytales and fashion.

‘In choreography people were interested in the purely decorative side of ballet. And I was not. Somehow I want ballet to be in touch with reality.’

MacMillan achieved phenomenal career success. He was appointed artistic director of the Royal Ballet, and subsequently became its principal choreographer. In 1983 he was knighted. But he was always an outsider.

‘There is a class system here, an old boy network which I never belonged to. And I’ve always kicked against it and always will.’

Perhaps this outsider status spurred him on to keep challenging conventions and breaking new ground. His work demonstrated a profound sympathy with the desperate and downtrodden.

‘The situation I enjoyed working at best was the individual against society really – the outside figure that has a hard time.’

MacMillan’s story suggests a number of lessons for people working in marketing and communications.

He teaches us to treasure our outsider status - because difference creates difference; and to seek authenticity, even in an environment that is characterised by artifice and contrivance. Sometimes commercial creativity seems to inhabit a landscape of stereotypes, paradigms and puns. Yet, it is always possible to find real feeling, emotional truth and personal resonance - whatever the context.

I was particularly struck by MacMillan’s description of his method for constructing a ballet.

‘There have to be highlights in a ballet. All the highlights are the pas de deux. That’s part of my ethos. When I do a ballet I choreograph the pas de deux first. So I know at what height they are, and then underneath that I do everything else. So that they do become the highlights of the ballet.’

Often our Clients want us to build solutions that reach across fragmented media; that span diverse platforms and address disparate objectives. We can tie ourselves in knots accommodating every consideration and concern; building ecosystems, planning journeys, designing architectures. Or we can sit frozen - paralysed by the complexity - with absolutely no idea where to start.

Whether we are constructing a communication campaign, a user interface or a strategic presentation, MacMillan teaches that we should always start with the highlights: first crack the central theme; solve the biggest conundrum; create the centrepiece - and then design the rest of the solution around it.

This prescribes a core task for leadership: to identify the focal point; the critical priority; the heart of the matter. Leaders must show their teams how to solve problems in sequence.

Throughout his life MacMillan suffered from depression and loneliness. He became dependent on alcohol and tranquilisers, and had a weak heart. On 29 October 1992 he was backstage at the Royal Opera House watching a performance of his ballet, ‘Mayerling’. He collapsed and died. He was 62.

In the BBC documentary the dancer Alessandra Ferri observed:

‘Kenneth choreographed life. And real life. Not in a romantic way, not in a fairytale. Life has some amazing beautiful loves. Normally it has some tragic moments. And it has death. That is part of life. You can’t live life without death, it’s impossible.’


(The Royal Ballet will stage ‘Mayerling’ in October 2018, and English National Ballet will be touring with ‘Manon’ from October 2018 to January 2019.)

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