Scot­tish Bal­let’s The Fairy’s Kiss

Can a 1960s ver­sion of a 19th-cen­tury fairy­tale still cast a spell with mod­ern au­di­ences? As Scot­tish Bal­let pre­pares to breathe new life into Ken­neth MacMil­lan’s The Fairy’s Kiss, Mark Brown meets the designers cre­at­ing magic for the stage

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - The Fairy’s Kiss and The Rite Of Spring open at the The­atre Royal, Glas­gow on Oc­to­ber 6. For full tour de­tails, visit: scot­tish­bal­let.co.uk

IT is 25 years since Dun­fermlineborn mas­ter chore­og­ra­pher Ken­neth MacMil­lan passed away, aged just 62. A quar­ter­century on, the dance world con­tin­ues both to mourn his pass­ing and to cel­e­brate his in­flu­en­tial oeu­vre, and later this month, his legacy will be marked by a fort­night­long event en­ti­tled Ken­neth MacMil­lan: A Na­tional Cel­e­bra­tion at London’s Royal Opera House. Per­form­ers from Scot­tish Bal­let will join other ma­jor UK com­pa­nies in re­viv­ing Elite Syn­co­pa­tions, MacMil­lan’s homage to the age of jazz.

Even more sig­nif­i­cantly, Scot­tish Bal­let will stage its own new ver­sion of the early work The Fairy’s Kiss, which is based on Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen’s 1861 fairy­tale The Ice Maiden and danced to mu­sic by Igor Stravin­sky. As well as play­ing at the London cel­e­bra­tion, The Fairy’s Kiss will sit along­side a re­vival of the com­pany’s ac­claimed 2013 stag­ing of Stravin­sky’s The Rite Of Spring (chore­ographed by Scot­tish Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Christo­pher Hamp­son) in the com­pany’s au­tumn tour of Scot­land. The An­der­sen-in­spired bal­let (first staged in 1960 and re­vived only once since) will hon­our MacMil­lan’s chore­og­ra­phy, of course, but will en­joy an en­tirely new de­sign by Gary Har­ris. An ac­claimed bal­let de­signer, Har­ris designed Hansel And Gre­tel for Scot­tish Bal­let, as well as work­ing on many other projects with Hamp­son, both at the English Na­tional Bal­let and the Royal New Zealand Bal­let.

Ahead of open­ing night, I visit Har­ris and the pro­duc­tion team at Scot­tish Bal­let’s Glas­gow head­quar­ters. I’m keen to see how the com­pany is reen­vi­sion­ing An­der­sen’s tale of young love and dark, meta­phys­i­cal forces.

Har­ris shows me the im­age that will function as the back­drop to his set, which has proved to be the cen­tral in­spi­ra­tion for his en­tire de­sign for the bal­let. The pic­ture has been cre­ated from a stun­ning black and white pho­to­graph, taken some years ago by Ken­neth MacMil­lan’s widow, the Aus­tralian-born artist Deb­o­rah

MacMil­lan, who con­tin­ues to play a very ac­tive role in the stag­ing of her late hus­band’s work.

Taken from an aero­plane, the pho­to­graph gives an ex­tra­or­di­nary, bird’s eye view of the An­des Moun­tains in South Amer­ica. Fol­low­ing a lit­tle treat­ment by Har­ris, it becomes reminiscent of the great Ger­man painter Gerhard Richter’s fa­mous pho­to­graph paint­ings, which cap­ture so much of the power of na­ture.

For Har­ris, the photo was the per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the moun­tain home­stead of An­der­sen’s young or­phan boy, who is caught be­tween his love for a girl from his vil­lage and the en­chant­ment of a wicked fairy. The de­signer con­sid­ers the im­age beautifully evoca­tive, both of the Swiss Alps of An­der­sen’s story and the ethe­real oth­er­world of the tale.

“It’s in the mid­dle of nowhere, it could be any­where,” says Har­ris. “I love the sense of ver­tigo you get from this lit­tle vil­lage high in the moun­tains.” Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan’s pho­to­graph, he adds, provides a vis­ual re­flec­tion of “the cold, in­hu­man part of the story”.

For her part, Deb­o­rah, who speaks to me from her London home, is de­lighted to have been able to as­sist in the de­vel­op­ment of Har­ris’s de­sign concept. “I thought the pho­to­graph was rather in­ter­est­ing,” she says. “It’s a fairy­tale, none of it is real, and there is this land be­yond time and place. You have to in­vent a space that is other­worldly. I think the pho­to­graph helped trig­ger Gary’s imag­i­na­tion.”

The key to the pho­to­graph’s power, Har­ris and Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan agree, is its per­spec­tive. “You don’t re­ally look at moun­tains from above,” Deb­o­rah com­ments. “You look at them from down be­low, and your sense of per­spec­tive is from ground level, look­ing up. [The photo] just seemed to fit [the bal­let] very well, and Gary’s grabbed hold of it and made these beau­ti­ful de­signs.”

The de­signs, which in­clude win­dows and lights sus­pended in midair, evoke the con­trasts within the bal­let it­self. Like An­der­sen’s story, Ken­neth MacMil­lan’s work is a tale of earthy, sim­ple peas­ants and ethe­real, dan­ger­ous sprites.

His widow’s evoca­tive pho­to­graph and the as­sid­u­ously cold cos­tumes of the fairy and her min­ions con­trast with the de­signs for the moun­tain-dwelling peas­ants them­selves. The gen­tler, more hu­man­is­tic di­men­sion of the tale comes, says Har­ris, “with the vil­lagers, who bring or­anges, yel­lows and browns, warm, earthy colours”.

“With these fairy­tales you can’t make it too real”, Deb­o­rah adds. “The au­di­ence has to be able to sus­pend its dis­be­lief. You cre­ate a world for the au­di­ence that they can be­lieve in. As long as the de­signs don’t get too real, they’ll go along with that.” A visit to the Scot­tish Bal­let cos­tume de­part­ment, cour­tesy of head of wardrobe Mary Mullen, un­cov­ers cos­tumes of tremen­dous con­trasts. The vil­lagers will be dressed in garb that is an al­most hyper-real evo­ca­tion of the connection be­tween the ide­alised Euro­pean peas­ant and the land that sus­tains them. The sprites, by rad­i­cal dis­tinc­tion, will be in shim­mer­ing sil­vers, greys and blacks. Hav­ing watched the grainy film of the 1960 pro­duc­tion, Har­ris brought just one orig­i­nal de­sign into Scot­tish Bal­let’s stag­ing. “The only cos­tume I kept from the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion, in terms of its sil­hou­ette and shape, was the fairy,” the de­signer ex­plains. “The rest is all new, straight out of my head. “It’s a traditional, vil­lagey bal­let,” he con­tin­ues, “but I also wanted to keep the cold, icy, black and white vision of the fairy, the wind and those characters from the oth­er­world.” Al­though the de­signs are his own, Har­ris is full of praise for Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan’s sup­port­ive in­put. Not only did she pro­vide the cen­tral im­age for the piece, but the chore­og­ra­pher’s widow has made her­self avail­able as a reg­u­lar ad­viser on the de­sign.

“She’s been bril­liant,” says Har­ris. “She and I have been talk­ing through­out the whole process.” In­deed, Har­ris tells me, none of his de­sign ideas, be they for the set or cos­tumes, have gone ahead with­out dis­cus­sion with Deb­o­rah.

The ad­mi­ra­tion is en­tirely mu­tual. “I’ve been watch­ing the de­sign as it’s been com­ing to­gether and I think it’s great,” Deb­o­rah tells me. “Gary’s a highly tal­ented de­signer. “It’s quite a lonely job de­sign­ing some­thing for the stage, and you need to work with some­one you can bounce ideas off.”

Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan has plenty of ideas about this year of cel­e­bra­tion of her late hus­band’s work, and about Scot­tish Bal­let’s role in it. “I’m very touched that [the cel­e­bra­tions are] happening”, she says. “There’s a va­ri­ety of his work be­ing shown. It helps the dancers to un­der­stand his work a bit bet­ter, and it’s very good for au­di­ences to see the great va­ri­ety of the work that he pro­duced.”

She is “par­tic­u­larly thrilled with Scot­tish Bal­let. They’ve taken upon them­selves to re­vive these purely clas­si­cal pieces. That’s thrilling be­cause it shows where he started and where he came from”.

Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan is grate­ful to Scot­tish Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor (“I have a lot of time for Chris Hamp­son,” she tells me) and is look­ing for­ward to seeing The Fairy’s Kiss take its place on the Covent Gar­den stage.

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