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
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.