This work was first staged in an Olympic year 1968, when the Games were held in Mexico City. Already in Germany there was eager anticipation of the Games to be held four years later in Munich. It is not difficult to view Olympiad as a straightforward crowd-pleaser. MacMillan was still director of the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper. While audiences in Berlin showed naked contempt for anything that smacked of the classical repertory, MacMillan had found greater acceptance for contemporary pieces, his own included.
Other choreographers had already been attracted to Stravinsky’s score (Hans Van Manen (1963), Aurel Milloss (1960)), for its surges of rhythmic power culminating in the concluding agitato (with its strong afterimages of The Rite of Spring). Olympiad’s idiom is neo-classical, the symphony’s outer movements playful explorations of athleticism. In the first, movement the male principals limber, jump, run and spar. The middle section is a choreographed mixed doubles tennis match with a leading role for Seymour (tennis had not, at the time, been played at the Olympics for more than sixty years). The finale, with a large corps de ballet, recalls the marathon.
The principal dancers, six men and three women were costumed in light blue track suits and short pleated tennis skirts; the improvised designs were MacMillan’s - there was almost no budget for costumes).
According to Stravinsky, he had written his symphony ‘under the impression of world events....each episode is linked in my imagination with a specific cinematographic impression of war’, the third movement a more specific reaction to an encounter with Brown Shirts in Munich in 1932. When in 1969 Olympiad was staged at Covent Garden (an unintended substitution for Cain and Abel), the programme notes were devoted not to the choreography, but, rather jarringly, to Stravinsky’s remarks about its genesis. According to MacMillan’s earlier biographer, Edward Thorpe, the choreographer conceded subsequently that half way through creating the work, he realised he had ‘not understood the aims of the music’.
Clement Crisp’s view of Olympiad as a “happy venture in the refreshing of classical steps” was not widely shared. Horst Koegler, while allowing that MacMillan was ‘a genuine choreographer of the instinctive kind’, thought the choreography no more than ‘perfectly danceable’. For The Guardian’s James Kennedy, Olympiad show(ed) MacMillan in one of those troughs between his peaks of achievement”
The Sphinx was performed once and was not notated.