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Composing a Ballet

When Kenneth MacMillan invited me to collaborate with him on a new ballet (shortly after the first performance of my Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya in April 1989) I was overwhelmed. I had never written for dance before, but had always loved it and this opportunity to work with such a great choreographer, the Royal Ballet and the superb orchestra at the Royal Opera House was more than I could ever have dreamed about.


In many respects, the terms of this commission were something of an anachronism. I felt I had suddenly been transported back to the Diaghilev era with all its artistic largesse and extravagances. Fewer and fewer ballet and dance companies work with live music today, and the number of ballet companies with resident orchestras around the world can be counted on the fingers of one hand; rarer still are commissions for orchestral ballets.


Kenneth followed Diaghilev even further in his categorical refusal to provide me with a detailed scenario or even an overall story line. He did not want anything remotely resembling a film score, but a piece of music written for dance. Although I grumbled about this at first (it was hard to know where to begin!) I had to take up the challenge. I could not ignore the precedents of Tchaikowsky, Stravinsky, Ravel and others; my aspiration then had to be to attempt a piece of music that would have its own validity but would first and foremost serve Kenneth's needs. If the music was to have a further life on its own, that would be a bonus.


Our first discussions established the subject of betrayal. The events at Tiananmen (sp.?) Square were much in the news at the time, and we also felt strongly about our own experiences of duplicity and rejection. We decided on an overall structure for the drama of the piece, which became a kind of talisman for me. The whole piece was formed around it:









Judas Tree 1.jpg

We also decided that the Judas story would contribute elements to the development of the piece without being a narrative; the atmosphere would be surreal, and the work would last about forty minutes.


I now needed to understand how the dancers translated music into their extraordinary bodies and went to as many performances of the Royal Ballet as I could. Clearly, music that inspired good choreography and good dancing had to have a strong rhythmic sense to it, but that rhythm need not always be a literal ostinato or pulse. Many different aspects of rhythm were essential, including those created by harmonic movement and longer term values such as phrase lengths and extended metre. Colour in great variety and melody were also of the utmost importance as well as clear characterisation of material and episodes.


Another problem that absorbed me was one of timing. Various musical elements that may be more quickly defined and stated in a concert piece need more time in dance to allow the dancers the temporal and physical space to take up the material and give it expression.  A similar comparison may be made of the differences between lieder and opera.

Gradually, I developed my own 'story' as the music grew, knowing full well that Kenneth was unlikely to pay much attention to its details when he came to choreograph the piece. Especially in the early stages, I often played him fragments of the score to check if I was on the right track. Although Kenneth, like most choreographers, had no formal musical training, his musical responses were extremely strong and accurate throughout the making of the ballet, somehow all the more informed and powerful for being so completely intuitive. I was enormously gratified by his sensitivity to the music, and his constant respect for my own needs and strictures in the composition.

Judas Tree 2.jpg

Kenneth‘s response to a piano tape of the completed sketch was somewhat guarded, and I realised that despite his wide experience, he could not imagine the orchestral colours that I intended. This highlighted a problem that so many choreographers and dancers have to deal with in using new, unperformed and unrecorded scores, and is probably one of the main reasons why so few orchestral dance scores are commissioned. With new work the final score is not heard until a few days before the premiere, and the transformation of sound from piano to full orchestra can prove a tremendous surprise, to say the least. Fortunately, substantial extra funds were found to make a rehearsal recording of the full score when it was completed. This time, Kenneth greeted the music with enthusiasm and the tape proved to be quite invaluable in the choreographic process.

The music now belonged to Kenneth, and it was a completely new experience for me to give up 'ownership' of a work so long before it had received a performance. Naturally, I was not involved in the choreographic process, and Kenneth worked privately with the dancers. He only allowed me in towards the end of his work, an experience I found quite thrilling. It was so exciting to see so many things coming to life and so many people deeply involved in the work. By now, the artist Jock MacFadyen's designs for the set and costumes

were complete, and the work was finally becoming an entity.


Many of our original ideas for narrative and local structure had gone by the board as Kenneth created his own response to the score. I held my breath, and kept away for the most part as the weeks of choreography went by, fearing and wondering when I would be asked for cuts and changes. The choreography was done over a period of approximately three months, compared to the twenty months I had spent writing the music. It was a great relief that there was only one easily managed cut to be made, but I would have been quite prepared to make further changes if required. Collaborating in the theatre means that one must be prepared to respond to demands and needs that arise at the last minute as a work is being staged.


Looking back on composing the music for The Judas Tree, it is easy to delude myself into imagining that it was always a complete idea, right from the very beginning. Of course this was not so, but if there was a completeness from the very beginning, it was in the gift of our mutual trust and the will to collaborate.


BE 7th October 1996


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