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Kenneth MacMillan: Steps Back in Time review at Barbican, London – ‘a superb, fascinating project’

The cast of Kenneth MacMillan Steps Back in Time at The Pit, Barbican. The cast of Kenneth MacMillan Steps Back in Time at The Pit, Barbican.
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In November, Britain’s ballet companies commemorated the 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death with a varied programme of his one act works. Now Viviana Durante (on whom MacMillan created the controversial role of the Woman in The Judas Tree), continues the celebration of his choreographic legacy with a fascinating look at three early creations.

Premiered in 1954 and 1955, Laiderette (here performed in full), Danses Concertantes and House of Birds are all set to 20th-century compositions, marked by a restless physicality that diverts classical technique from genteel prettiness into a darker, spiky territory, influenced by German expressionism. In the petite Pit, it’s possible to hear every shoe squeak and laboured breath from the dancers (artists of Ballet Black, Scottish Ballet and the Royal) but aside from the occasional aural awkwardness the immediacy is riveting.

Akane Takada articulates staccato phrases with cool aplomb in a brief extract from the plotless, Stravinsky-set Danses Concertantes. The only downside is the costumes – dated turquoise bodysuits and headpieces that resemble the hardwear on military helmets. In House of Birds, sensitively accompanied by pianist Jonathan Higgins, Lauren Cuthbertson excels as a blithe girl transformed into a bird by a monstrously-beaked witch. There’s no delicate fluttering here, but agonised stuttering steps as her limbs take on a frightening otherness. Laiderette (a contraction of the French for ‘little ugly one’) is an affecting outsider tale. The superb Francesca Hayward brings gauche pathos and panic to the titular role, a mullety wig temporarily concealing her baldness and personal despair.

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A superbly danced, fascinating project that restages three of MacMillan’s early creations