Interview: Lost ballets: Bringing MacMillan to the big screen

Wednesday 20 September 2017 by Samantha Whitaker

“It’s thrilling to see these ballets. They burst out at you. His ingenuity and differentness. A young man coming in saying, ‘I’m going to make ballet more real. It’s not about fairies.‘“

Lynne Wake, ex-ballet dancer turned filmmaker, is talking about the late choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, whose extraordinary legacy will be celebrated at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in October to mark the 25th anniversary of his death.

The programme will include a screening of Lynne’s documentary film, New Wave Ballet, an exciting rework of her 2002 film featuring interviews with ex-dancers who worked closely with MacMillan at the beginning of his career. Their insights provide a window into the choreographer’s work – almost as near as you can get to talking to MacMillan himself.

In this new version, the precious interviews have been recut with newly uncovered restored footage of eight early MacMillan ballets by photographer and filmmaker Edmée Wood – three of which are completely “lost” ballets: Laiderette, House of Birds and The Burrow. “I’m thrilled to be able to bring these ballets to life and have people see them as they were,” says Lynne. “It’s so interesting and enlightening.”

Lynne entered the world of film in the early 1990s. A professional ballet dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) for eight years, she retired at 28 when a dental operation and the enforced recuperation made her realise she’d had enough. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d be a dancer forever,” Lynne explains. “I could see that to really be something not only takes enormous talent, but a single mindedness that I just didn’t have.”

So Lynne went back to school, taking her A Levels and studying languages at university. When she graduated, she saw a job advertised to work with film historians and restorers Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill. Having been a keen photographer and silent film fan since her dancing days, the opportunity seemed like fate. “When I first saw Napoléon, the 1927 silent film by Abel Gance, which Brownlow and Gill had restored, I was completely blown away,” says Lynne. “It was so dynamically shot and edited. It was almost like dancing.”

Brownlow and Gill were setting up their own company, Photoplay Productions, and needed someone with languages to work on a series about European cinema. Lynne fit the bill, starting as their secretary and working her way up to researcher. She also directed a short film on Nosferatu.

Then, in 2002, Lynne found out about an event being organised by the Royal Academy of Dance to mark ten years since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. “They were bringing together a lot of important people who had worked with Kenneth to speak on panels and I saw an amazing opportunity,” Lynne explains. “I’d read Kevin Brownlow’s book, The Parade’s Gone By, which features interviews with the actors and production crew who made silent films. The words literally bubbled off the page. You could feel first-hand the enthusiasm of the people talking about what they did and what they know. I wanted to recreate that feeling in a film about ballet.”

Deborah MacMillan agreed for Lynne to interview ex-dancers Anne Heaton, Michael Bolton, Anya Linden, Donald MacLeary, Lynn Seymour and Monica Mason to commemorate the event. But when she came to add some video footage of the ballets they talked about from the ROH archives, the videos were unusable. “It was so sad. You could hardly see the dancers. They just looked like blobs moving around in a big black space,” says Lynne, who resorted to still photography montages, brought to life with a rostrum camera. The result was New Wave Ballet (2002).

A revelation

More than ten years later, the ROH collection was left some 16mm films by the late South African ballet dancer Nadia Nerina, which Lynne was helping to transfer into a viewable format. Many of the films had been created for television, but one showed Nerina performing in Sylvia on the ROH stage: “It was a real revelation,” says Lynne. “The picture was pin sharp with an immense amount of detail. It looked amazing.”

Suddenly, Lynne realised that perhaps the old films she’d wanted to use before weren’t necessarily bad films, they’d just been poorly transferred. So she set about trying to get hold of the originals, which were being stored in the British Film Institute archives.

With funding from the Linbury Trust, Lynne began co-ordinating the specialised process of restoring ballet films and interviewing ex-dancers for an ongoing project called The Golden Age of British Ballet. “It’s wonderful because usually you’re so restricted with time and have to keep the content very specific, but now I can give over a whole day to interviewing these people.”

So far, Lynne has restored 19 Edmée Wood films and conducted 22 interviews with major ballet dancers and choreographers, including wartime dancers Beryl Grey, Gillian Lynne and the 98-year-old Henry Danton; 1940s/50s stars Annette Page and Ronald Hynd; and re-interviews with some of the New Wave Ballet cast.

Eventually, Lynne would like to showcase some of this material in a definitive film, but the main objective is to build a comprehensive, wide-ranging archive for the ROH that can be used forever by researchers and ballet fans. What’s important, says Lynne, is having the dancers speak for themselves: “There’s no narration. Whatever is said is said by them. They worked with these choreographers, and they know what it was like. It’s the biggest kick talking to these people. I still can’t believe I get to do it.”

More about the image

‘This image shows my gloved thumb and finger holding the negative of the Edmée Wood film of the lost Kenneth MacMillan ballet House of Birds (1955) that we found unidentified in a rusty film can in a box from the Royal Opera House. We took this picture when it came out of the can to identify what it was. It’s one of the films that have been transferred and sections have been used in New Wave Ballet.’

Watch New Wave Ballet at the Ham Yard Theatre on 20 and 21 October, from £15

Find out more about ROH Insights for Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration.

Lynne spoke to Samantha Whitaker. Samantha is an editor and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @swhit1985

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