“I’m sick to death of fairytales” Kenneth MacMillan once told The Times. Yet Le Baiser de la fée fascinated him and he revisited his 1960 original again in 1986. “It was the music that naturally attracted me”, he told Clive Barnes, “certainly not the story. I realise that the story is not altogether convincing. But I also found the theme, or, if you like, allegory, extraordinarily interesting.”
This was Kenneth MacMillan’s third Stravinsky ballet; the previous two were Danses Concertantes (1955) and Agon (1959). While the score of Baiser had been admired from the time of its composition in 1929, choreographers had struggled to create a completely successful staging. Nijinska’s original for Ida Rubinstein had left Stravinsky cold (“I’m just back from the theatre with a fearful headache as a result of the terrible things I’ve been seeing”). Kenneth MacMillan was the eighth choreographer to tackle Baiser; others who had previously hazarded its pitfalls included Frederick Ashton (1935) and George Balanchine (1937), both of whom had warned MacMillan of the difficulties in his way, chief among them the lack of obvious relationships between score and scenario. For several critics, MacMillan’s version is the most credible in its engagement with both and in its attempt to reconcile them.
Musically Le Baiser de la fée is a tribute to Tchaikovsky, while its scenario is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden. This is the story of a boy destined for immortality because he has been kissed at birth by a fairy, or ice maiden. When the boy grows up and marries, the fairy reappears, entices away him from his bride and carries him away to supreme happiness. Stravinsky explained his fascination with the tale:
“In associating this muse (i.e. Tchaikovsky) with our Fairy, this ballet becomes an allegory. This Muse has in the same way marked the ballet with the fatal kiss whose mysterious imprint is visible in all the work of that great artist.”
Ashton, in creating his version, identified with the idea of the kiss as an ordination, an artistic setting apart. For Ashton the instant of the kiss is the climactic ecstatic moment in the young man’s life. But MacMillan had a far darker story to tell. His instinct was for the bride betrayed. His tale is one of good and evil - of the abandoned bride (“She’s the one who is lost”) and a young man in the grip of everlasting darkness. For Clive Barnes, MacMillan, in reconceiving the allegory, had cut to its heart:
“...the artist in society, the man marked out from his fellows, unable to join in their life and dedicated to suffering”. In MacMillan’s hands, Barnes suggested, the ballet “not only appears as a telling homage to the 19th-century Russian ballets that inspired it, but also as a work full of noble, singing poetry.”
MacMillan was determined that the set should not recycle traditional images of fairyland. Instead, the designer Kenneth Rowell created a threatening landscape in dark mineral colours; an abstract world of rock stratas, gorges, caverns and ominous icebergs.
For Richard Buckle, this Baiser was a ‘tremendous success’. He continued: “MacMillan, with his ear to the ground, has perfectly translated into movement the filigree of shimmering insect splendour which is a feature of this score. Of Lynn Seymour as the Bride, he wrote that she “skims and flits like a happy gnat through her lovely allegretto variation: she has the priceless gift of lending to art an air of spontaneity, and without question makes a triumph of her first created role. Of Svetlana Beriosova as the Fairy, it seemed to Buckle that she had never been seen to better effect in a modern ballet. “As the Fairy, her swooping boreal gestures and Alpine style point the difference between god and human.”
As for The Times, “The criticism that the music, drawn from Tchaikovsky’s salon music, with difficulty sustains a continuous ballet in four scenes is just, but so much invention has been put into the new choreography by Mr Kenneth MacMillan and into the splendid evocative scenery by Mr Kenneth Rowell, that the weakness of the hybrid creation was not obtrusive, for the eye was continuously and abundantly satisfied and gratified.” For Dance and Dancers MacMillan’s greatest success was in transforming nineteenth century classical choreography into “something completely individual and yet at the same time retaining the essence of its style and structure. Le Baiser de la fée represents the most mature choreography MacMillan has so far given us.”
But for Alexander Bland of The Observer. “it is not until the pas de deux that interest quickens, the high point of the evening being soon reached in the fiancée’s solo, a delicious drifting rubato affair, which Lynn Seymour will make into a winner, when she has grown into it. The contrasting dance between the hero and the fairy, which follows (rather awkwardly) immediately afterwards, seems laboured by comparison with Beriosova – serene and fluid as ever, but hampered by a singularly unbecoming costume – not so romantically remote as she might have been. This is an ambivalent role – a kind of amiable Odile – but unattainability is surely in the long run a Muse’s trump card. Donald MacLeary danced and acted excellently throughout.”
Given so many excellent reviews, the question must be asked why the ballet did not survive. The reasons were similar to those for the non-survival in the repertory of Laiderette. MacMillan had wanted to do Le Baiser de la fée as his first commissioned ballet, but the musical demands (configuration) of Stravinsky’s score were impractical for a touring company. When it was produced in 1960 at Covent Garden, the complication became Kenneth Rowell’s set designs. These were so complex that, at a time when the Royal Ballet could call on sixty other works in the repertory, there were only six other ballets with which Le Baiser de la fée could, for technical reasons, be programmed. Of those six some were probably not compatible on the same programme; there could have been a preponderance of opening ballets or middle works, or impossible orchestral demands so Le Baiser de la fée was a nightmare to schedule and had only 33 performances.