Diversions

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Kenneth MacMillan choreographed Diversions to fill a last-minute gap in the first triple bill of the Royal Ballet’s 1961-’62 season. Ninette de Valois appealed to MacMillan to fill the breach. He agreed despite the pressure on him to complete another work, Seven Deadly Sins, for Western Ballet Theatre (the premiere of which was on 4 September). Little choice was given him about the shape of the work; it had to be plotless as the programme already had two narrative pieces, Frederick Ashton's Persephone and Alfred Rodrigues’s Jabez and the Devil. Neither was the score MacMillan’s choice; De Valois suggested Arthur Bliss's Music for Strings (de Valois's own Checkmate was also created to music by Bliss). With little time to seek an alternative score, MacMillan agreed to use Bliss.

Diversions is choreographed for two leading and four supporting couples. According to Edward Thorpe, MacMillan’s earlier biographer, when The Royal Ballet revived the piece in 1979, MacMillan remarked to him that he was amazed that, 18 years before, he had dared to demand such sustained virtuosity from his dancers.

Diversions was an exercise in neo-classicism of a kind by then familiar to MacMillan. Audiences who knew nothing of the background were surprised by the choice of Bliss as composer and of MacMillan’s ‘softening’ of his accustomed angularities to suit Bliss’s more traditional textures. The choreography is for two contrasting couples; one couple seem abstracted – almost ceremonial (Svetlana Beriosova and Donald MacLeary). In contrast to their ‘diffident grandeur’ (Clive Barnes’ description) is a more darting exuberant couple, who may be alter egos (Maryon Lane and Graham Usher). Four subsidiary couples frame the various pas de deux.

“Following the hint of the music”, wrote The Observer’s Alexander Bland, “MacMillan has concentrated on smoothness. There is no echo here of his early jerky, perky style. This is the purest classicism. There is hardly a step, which is not from the classroom, yet not a cliché.” Bland also noted parallels to Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations; this was also commented on in the (unsigned) Times review. “MacMillan’s choreographic idiom has taken a glance, if not a step backward, to the Ashton of Symphonic Variations, as though to check his development with the style of a senior colleague.” Peter Williams in Dance and Dancers suggested that if Symphonic Variations was a song of spring, that Diversions was its autumnal equivalent.

However, The Guardian’s un-named critic (possibly James Kennedy), characterised both Diversions and Jabez and the Devil, its companion piece in the programme as “the journalism of choreography – good, sound hack work, required by the repertory, but not born, apparently of any passion in their choreographers’ hearts”. Mary Clarke, writing in Dancing Times saw “hardly a quirk of MacMillan’s wry imagination.” She expressed surprise at MacMillan’s choice of music (“or if he did not choose it, (it is) surprising that he accepted the commission.” There was approval, however, from Clive Barnes at Dance and Dancers, who commented on “the refinement and exciting power of the choreography as a whole. It seems to spin out in one effortless and elegant thread.”

Philip Prowse’s designs (no doubt as hastily improvised as the ballet itself) came from a palette of aubergine, black, ochre and cinnamon, the women’s bodices and skirts and the men’s tunics possibly Minoan or Etruscan in inspiration For Peter Williams in Dance and Dancers it was “though Gods, or surviving mortals were performing some ritual in the ruins of a civilisation.”

As originally conceived, Diversions was to be performed only in blacks and practice dress, which suggests MacMillan thought of it an exercise in pure dance. At some point someone had second thoughts and designs were commissioned from Philip Prowse to a limited budget which laid down the use of only three flats. He turned the three flats into suspended borders of massive architecture, and set against them costumes with his characteristic creation of planes and shapes within the body outline, predominantly in brown, an uncommon colour on the dance stage.

The Royal Opera House’s annual report for 1961-62 noted that of the three ballets commissioned in the season, two, Ashton’s Persephone and MacMillan’s Diversions had become part of the permanent repertory Diversions was occasionally revived during the 1960s and in 1979 and performed by the Royal Ballet New Group in 1971. In 1999, Scottish Ballet revived the ballet with new designs by Philip Prowse.