Images of Love was one of two ballets commissioned for a Covent Garden triple bill to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The other works on the programme were Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and Robert Helpmann’s 1942 ballet Hamlet.
MacMillan’s ballet was a suite of vignettes about unsatisfactory love affairs. The individual episodes, nine in all, were based on speeches from Shakespeare’s plays – four from Two Gentlemen of Verona - and on Sonnet CXLIV (“Two loves I have of comfort and despair.”). A few lines, common to each the word ‘love’, were spoken by the actor Derek Godfrey (on tape) before each dance
“The idea of this deliberately episodic ballet was good but perilous”, wrote The Guardian’s critic James Kennedy.”The quotation before each episode promised, or seemed to promise, something new and different each time; but seven times out of ten, the promise was unfulfilled. It is difficult enough to make a good one-act ballet; but to make eight short ballets, each with a sharp choreographic point, is more difficult still.
“Once again”, wrote Clive Barnes for Dance and Dancers, “MacMillan has based his ballet on the character of the ‘little girl lost’, although here this MacMillan familiar is given for the first time to a male dancer, and the Rudolf Nureyev role, miserably alone in a world of miserable loveless couples, could perhaps have been used to bring the ballet into sharper focus.”
MacMillan’s character sketches are often intriguing”, The Times music critic reported, while Alexander Bland of The Observer had praise for individual vignettes. “Two at least are original, moving and beautiful. A legato “love is blind” pas de deux for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable is written as though the two lovers, seeing only through their bodies, were drowning in a sea of sensuousness.; and a slow pas de trois in which Nureyev joins the same pair to become the apex of the sinuousness triangle celebrated in the “two angels” sonnet, exploits a new and fascinating Oriental plasticism. Both were superbly danced.”
The specially commissioned score was by Peter Tranchell, a Cambridge music lecturer. For Noel Goodwin of Dance and Dancers, it was little more than an accompaniment which failed to amplify character and had “the semblance of sound-track music”. For James Kennedy of The Guardian, it was “emphatically not the food of love.”
For Images of Love, Barry Kay created a multi-level tubular construction. MacMillan had originally seen Kay’s work in the theatre and been particularly struck by his mastery of period costume design. MacMillan acknowledged that working with Kay made his job so much easier, the clear, yet imaginative designs helping to clarify his own often vague ideas during the creating of the ballet. Also, importantly, they shared a similar response to music. MacMillan remembered Images of Love’s set being “for me a breakthrough in 3-dimensional stage design” although it was rather a 3-d backcloth than a setting within which the dancers moved. The 1960s was to see the development of built sets rather than backcloths for ballets, notably Las Hermanas (1963) and Romeo and Juliet (1965), both designed by Georgiadis.
Of the set, Kennedy wrote that “Barry Kay’s bamboo edifice, in the background to this work, was alluring”. Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers agreed about its visual beauty, but argued that it distracted from the dance. “What Kay has done for Images of Love seems to belong to the designer trying his hand at sculpture rather than a sculptor bringing his own plastic sense to choreography.”