Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem for American Ballet Theatre, set to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, was premiered during ABT’s annual winter season in Chicago. Lloyd Webber took his inspiration from a story in The New York Times during the rule of terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia about a boy forced to choose between killing himself or his sister.
Requiem is divided into nine sections, each one corresponding to a section of the Mass for the dead. “The boy’s dilemma of having to kill his sister, of always being haunted by that horror, is the image from which I’ve tried to recreate the dance”, MacMillan wrote in a programme note. His founding image was of a pietà; that of the boy holding his sister’s limp body and rocking it back and forth. Throughout the ballet this image is repeated, amplified and varied on. The sister was danced by Alessandra Ferri, recently arrived at ABT from The Royal Ballet, while the role of the boy, although created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, was danced at the premiere – and subsequently – by Gil Boggs (Baryshnikov had recently had an operation for a knee injury). Three couples, backed up by a corps, seemed to act as alter egos, elaborating the anguished emotions of brother and sister.
At the premiere Sarah Brightman sang Requiem’s soprano role and reaction to the work in the local press was warm. “Theatrically successful ...more than the sum of its parts”, was The Chicago Tribune’s verdict. “Dancing against Yolanda Sonnabend's nebulous transparent splattered curtains and hanging coils -which Tom Skelton's lighting transforms brilliantly into everything from a concentration camp to blood or fire - the corps and the soloists kept up the emotional pitch”, wrote Anne Kisselgoff, The New York Times’ critic. For the dance historian Beth Genné who attended the first night for Dancing Times, Requiem showed MacMillan “responding in a deeply felt, musically sensitive way to a huge, and at times, undisciplined score that juxtaposes some very heavy-handed orchestral and vocal effects with moments of real pathos and power.