MacMillan, Sir Kenneth


Kenneth MacMillan was an enigmatic figure, who laid his emotions bare in his ballets; challenging and provoking his audiences. His father, William, met Edith Shreeve, who lived at Ormesby Waterworks, during the First World War. Edith’s father was an engine-minder and William was guarding the waterworks. The couple married. He returned home to unemployment after being gassed in the hostilities and was disillusioned with post-war life. The family moved to Glasgow, where William obtained work, but was dismissed for complaining about the treatment of a fellow worker. He then set up as a chicken farmer. This business failed and the family did a moonlight flit back to Great Yarmouth to escape their situation. Kenneth had learned country dancing in Scotland. Later when, in Great Yarmouth attending Northgate Junior School, he would dance outside the Garibaldi Hotel for pennies. He won talent competitions at the Britannia Pier and attended dancing classes at the Little Theatre with Miss Jean Boulton. He was evacuated from Northgate School to Upper Broughton in Nottinghamshire, but returned to Great Yarmouth, homesick. He obtained a scholarship to the Grammar School and was evacuated again; this time to Retford. Kenneth became so proficient and confident that during school holidays back in Great Yarmouth, he joined the grandiosely named Empire Orpheans, a concert party based at the Empire Cinema. They toured American air force bases. MacMillan later wrote: my mind boggles today to think how awful we must have been, but the airmen were very kind. They would feed us well and give us chocolates. Kenneth’s mother died during the war. Phyllis Adams, a local dance teacher, became his surrogate mother. She realised that Kenneth was a prodigious talent and taught him without charge, shaping his ambition to dance. She later recounted: a lasting memory of mine was watching Kenneth doing grand jetes across Yarmouth Market Place on his way home from school

When he was 15 years old, MacMillan found an advertisement in the Dancing Times offering scholarships for boys at the Saddler’s Wells Ballet School. He wrote to Ninette de Valois in the name of his father. The letter got him an audition, but did not fool anyone, as he discovered later when as Director of the Royal Ballet he looked through his files. Ninette de Valois was persuaded of his ability and awarded him a scholarship, comprising free tuition, an accommodation allowance and five shillings a week pocket money. At the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, MacMillan began to meet kindred spirits of his own age. In little over a year he was a member of the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet, Soon, he moved to the larger Sadler’s Wells Company, by then based at Covent Garden. He went on its first American tour, dancing the role of Florestan in The Sleeping Beauty, on the company’s triumphant opening night in New York in 1949. However, MacMillan became increasingly troubled by stage fright and then turned to choreography. 

In 1966, Kenneth MacMillan moved to West Berlin to become the Director of Ballet at the Deutsche Oper and remained there for four years. In 1970, he returned to London to become the Director of The Royal Ballet. He greatly expanded the company’s repertory, doubling the number of Balanchine works, introducing ballets by Tetley, Cranko, Van Manen, and Neumeier. 

Throughout, MacMillan continued to be busy in the studio making one act works, including Elite Syncopations using music by Scott Joplin. However, MacMillan concentrated on long ballets. No 20th Century chorographer produced so many full-length works. After seven years as the Director of the Royal Ballet, MacMillan retired, so that he could focus exclusively on his choreography. In 1974, MacMillan married Deborah Williams, an Australian artist and he was knighted in 1983. In 1984, while remaining Chief Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, he became Associate Director of the American Ballet Theatre for five years. 

Kenneth MacMillan died at the Royal Opera House on a night when Birmingham Royal Ballet was presenting his Romeo and Juliet in Birmingham and, when Mayerling was being revived at Covent Garden. The curtain calls were cut short by the news that he had collapsed backstage. The cast of Mayerling, still caught up in the drama of the ballet, were numb with shock. There were gasps and sobs from the members of the audience, who stood in silence before filing out into the night. 

MacMillan on Yarmouth beach