When Kenneth MacMillan first proposed choreographing a ballet to Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earthin 1959, the powers-that-be at the Royal Opera House in London were taken aback. Members of the Board of Governors objected to the very idea of ballet being performed to serious music that had not been written for dancing. Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet and still its artistic director in 1959, had no such qualms. She knew perfectly well from her experience at the Ballets Russes that ballets could be choreographed to symphonic music. She supported MacMillan's proposal, telling the board that the ideas he had outlined to her could prove 'a considerable artistic event'.
The board members couldn't agree. MacMillan was instructed to stay away from Mahler, whose music he loved. Undeterred, he tried again in 1965. He had just had a huge success with his first three-act ballet, Romeo and Juliet, and when asked what he wanted to do next, he said Song of the Earth. Though the board membership had changed over the years, strong-minded objectors prevailed. MacMillan promptly contacted his friend John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, and offered to create it for the German company.
Cranko secured a budget for the singers and large orchestra and gave MacMillan the choice of whatever dancers he wanted. Marcia Hayd_e, who took the leading female role in Das Lied von der Erde(as the ballet, like the music, is known in Germany) recalls that MacMillan came well prepared, knowing the words of Mahler's song-cycle and the kind of dance images he intended to reflect them. He assumed that German audiences would understand the lyrics, although he said later that it didn't worry him if people couldn't follow them: 'My audience can take the ballet on any level. If they get the message of the words, so much the better.'
The text of the songs is taken from Chinese poems of the 8th century T'ang dynasty, freely adapted into German. The poems are bittersweet recollections of human pleasures and sorrows, ending with a farewell to the world. Mahler, acutely aware of his own mortality because of a recently-diagnosed heart defect, added his own poignant coda with a repeated mantra: 'Ewig....Ewig ....forever and ever.'
MacMillan introduced a narrative thread as a link between the songs and their conclusion. 'The theme of the ballet is quite simple', he said. 'A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end we find that in death there is the promise of renewal. It is a sort of revelation achieved through death.'
The man is present from the start, among young people enjoying themselves, heedless of the transience of youth and beauty. In their midst is Der Ewige, the eternal one, distinguished from the others by a colourless half-mask. Translated into English, he is called the Messenger of Death, which makes him seem more sinister than MacMillan intended. 'Der Ewige, the one who is always there, is not at all evil. In fact, he is rather a nice guy, just hanging about. His mask makes him look like the others, only just that much different.'
The leading woman first appears in the second song, Autumn Solitude, which reveals her longing for a companion to end her loneliness. She finds a lover, only to lose him to death. Mourning her loss, she dances a long solo, requiring great reserves of stamina. She has to reach an acceptance of the inevitability of death. When she is rejoined by her lover, now wearing a half mask, and the Messenger, they link hands for one of the most moving endings in ballet.
The choreography MacMillan devised in 1965 was unusual and at first awkward for the Stuttgart dancers, until they adjusted to the parallel positions, flat-footed steps and tilted torsos. The women's arms are often angled at the elbows and wrists, adjusting imaginary flowing sleeves or picking flowers. MacMillan and his designer, Nicholas Georgiadis, had originally envisioned costumes with an oriental feel, though when they saw the chiffon garments in a dress rehearsal, they changed their minds.
They resorted to a version of practice dress, the men in T-shirts and tights, the women in simple tunics. The plain cyclorama came from the Stuttgart Opera compa- ny's stagings of Wagner's operas. Shorn of adornment, MacMillan's ballet appears timeless, an almost abstract response to Mahler's lush music. The austere setting is used for other companies' productions, including the Royal Ballet's. The board had been obliged to withdraw its objections after the acclaim for the Stuttgart premiere: Song of the Earth entered the Royal Ballet repertory six months later in 1966.
Houston Ballet first performed Song of the Earth in 1988, four years before MacMillan died. He had been good friends with Ben Stevenson, Houston Ballet's then director, since they started their careers as young dancers in post-war London. Stevenson, on a visit to the Royal Opera House in the 1980s, had stopped MacMillan on the stairs, refusing to move until he had agreed to mount at least one of his ballets for Houston's dancers. Plans for a new one, involving the Texan jazz singer Kellye Gray, had to be put on hold when MacMillan suffered his first heart attack. He agreed to Song of the Earth instead, enabling Houston Ballet to give the American premiere of the Mahler ballet. The company's revival of Song of the Earth September 8-18 marks only the second time that Houston Ballet has performed the work.
"Song of the Earthis a deeply emotional ballet for me, which I first saw when I was 16 at The Australian Ballet. It still gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about it," comments artistic director Stanton Welch. "The music is spectacular, very rich and deep. Everything about the piece seems so simple, yet it is truly emotional. It pulls at you and connects with you just like a Rothko painting."
MacMillan liked the dancers and orchestra so much that he offered his Gloria, to Poulenc's choral music, the following year. By the time of Houston Ballet's 20th anniversary in 1989, the company had expanded ambitiously, thanks to a successful endowment drive, making it the fourth largest company in the U.S. It could now accommodate MacMillan as artistic associate, as well as Christopher Bruce as resident choreographer. MacMillan's three-act Manon was already scheduled when he died in October 1992 of a heart attack at the Royal Opera House during the first night of a revival of his ballet Mayerling.
Jann Parry is the author of Different Drummer: the Life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009). She was dance critic for The London Observerfrom 1983-2004, and writes for various publications, including Dancing Times (UK), Royal Academy of Dance Gazette and Royal Opera House programs and magazine, About the House.