It was the blindest of blind dates. When aspiring artist Deborah Williams met Kenneth MacMillan, she had no idea he was one of the world’s most famous choreographers, a man whose radical ideas and dazzling steps were changing ballet forever. She didn’t even know his name as they sat, terrified, through the Clint Eastwood thriller Play Misty for Me during an encounter arranged by a mutual friend.
On their next date, as he embarked on “an old-fashioned courtship”, he met her at Victoria Station with sunglasses askew, half on, half off. “I didn’t know then he was on quite heavy tranquillisers for depression,” Deborah MacMillan says now. But from the start she was intrigued by this gentle, clever man. “He was the first man I really, really trusted. He was completely straight in all his dealings with me. There was nothing tricky about him at all, and he loved me. And it was reciprocated.”
A shadow of sadness passes across her face, followed by a quick laugh. She worries about sounding corny as she describes the great love affair that sustained Kenneth MacMillan from the moment they met in 1971 until his death, at the age of 62, in 1992.
We are talking in the cavernous foyer of the Barbican Theatre in London where an evening of his early ballets is being performed, revealing how quickly he became an assured maker of dance, determined to bring modern life and daring tales to the stage.
The same figure emerges in BBC4’s new documentary. But the film also reveals how often his bold ideas set him at odds with the ballet establishment. His widow bristles with anger. “I thought he was treated rather atrociously. I saw the stress he was under when he was creating something. It was appalling.”
The time when they met was particularly brutal for MacMillan. After a breakdown and a stroke, he’d returned from Germany to take on the artistic directorship of the Royal Ballet when Sir Frederick Ashton stepped down. He faced constant battles with the board, who distrusted this working-class boy who was now running ballet’s flagship company, and with critics, who gave his ground-breaking work a rough ride.
“He was chronically depressed for the first few years we were together and had a lot of treatment,” Deborah recalls. “He could fight his corner, was incredibly tough regarding his work, but he’d retreat if something had bad reviews.” Even Manon, now danced by 26 companies around the world and hailed as a masterpiece, was initially given a mixed reception. “It fed his anxiety. He wasn’t Superman.”
She provided support and the safety of a settled home life, which gave respite from his troubles outside. This was particularly true after their daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1973. “He could become very withdrawn and cut off,” she says. “But you can’t wallow, when you’ve got a tiny egomaniac rushing around. And that helped him a lot. He was a terrific father, just fabulous with Charlotte. I was a bit more of a policewoman, but he’d say, ‘Lay off her.’ ”
She laughs at the memory. Their home in south London was a sanctuary. In the documentary we hear a snatch of an interview in which Kenneth explains that while discovering ballet gave him one half of his identity, meeting Deborah gave him the other.
“Ballet is a totally narcissistic world. It has to be because they look in mirrors all day and they’re focusing on their short careers. I have a huge respect for dancers. But it means as a choreographer or a director, you’re responsible for people’s livelihoods and that’s a burden.” She acknowledges that Kenneth could be ruthless when working. “He was driven. I think creative people are. They’re ruthless and brutal – they can’t not do it. There’s always a lot of crashing and burning around creative people in general. In the studio, he could be forensic and vicious. He never was with us. He was a different fish at home.”
“I’d cook, he’d cook – using every dish in the kitchen so I’d be cleaning for days – and we’d go to the theatre and to films. He was absolutely riveted by popular culture and his idea of heaven was to come home, eat about 6pm, and then sit in front of the television, watching anything.”
While creating his ballets, he used to knit to relax. “He’d make these terrible garments, which he expected me to wear and which I never would. As he began choreographing the ballet, the tension would get tighter and tighter, so they’d go all out of shape. He’d throw them away when the ballet was finished, thank God.”
In their last years together, after he had his first massive heart attack, she knew they were living on borrowed time. “I worried a lot. My father, who was a doctor, was pretty straight with me. He said Kenneth should sit in a chair and not move. I said, if he sits in a chair he’ll die in ten minutes. He always managed to work. [Dance critic] Clement Crisp says in the film that work was his medicine, and I think it was.”
His heart condition meant that he came off the tranquillisers. “This much funnier, lighter, more immediate personality emerged. So we had four years when life was much better than it had been. Also Frederick Ashton had died, and the difference in people’s treatment of Kenneth was palpable. He was the grand old man suddenly. People are very fickle.”
Since his death, of another heart attack, backstage at the Royal Opera House during the opening night of his ballet Mayerling, MacMillan’s reputation has grown. That has been both a proud and a melancholy experience for Deborah. “I’m just very sad. I miss him.” She knows he’d have enjoyed the festival of his work and the acclaim surrounding the 25th anniversary of his death.
Yet for all his revered status, MacMillan ballets still have the capacity to cause offence. His last work, The Judas Tree, revived by the Royal Ballet last year, triggered accusations of misogyny from some critics for its depiction of a gang rape. On one level, Deborah is pleased his work is so strong it has the power to provoke debate. “That’s healthy; it makes people think.” On the other hand, she doesn’t disguise her irritation with the accusations, triggered partly by sensitivities unleashed by the #MeToo campaign. “I think it is a fashion, I really do, and it creates a climate where everything comes under scrutiny. Things that weren’t being looked at in that way are now being forensically re-examined.”
In that specific case, and in general, she refutes the very idea of misogyny. “There was no misogyny in his work. He never put women down. Ever. It is ridiculous to say it of him.”
It was Kenneth MacMillan’s desire to drag the real world, kicking and screaming, into the prettified arena of ballet that unsettled people, then and now. “An idea grabbed him and he did it. I don’t think he had any agenda and was quite surprised when people were shocked. His ideas were triggered by everything that was going on around him. He brought real life to ballet.”
Ballet’s Dark Knight: Sir Kenneth MacMillan is on Sunday at 9pm on BBC4