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Deborah MacMillan
Jeffery Taylor talks with Deborah MacMillan, doughty and plain-speaking widow of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, painter and cake provider...
March 2004


The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has just launched three of the Royal Ballet’s greatest hits. Mayerling, a harrowing tale of a royal dynasty’s descent into drugs and madness, Romeo and Juliet, the world’s legendary tragic love story and Anastasia, portraying the schizoid agony of Anna Anderson’s obsession with the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Three 20th century British works that rival in quality and magnificence the Russian classics of the 1800s. And all created by Kenneth MacMillan who died aged 62 in October, 1992.

Today MacMillan’s works are lauded all over the world as seminal to the art form and hailed in his home country with five star reviews dripping with hyperbolic praise. What a stark contrast to their reception when created in the 1960s and 70s. The press was vituperative calling Anastasia a “disaster” and MacMillan, then director of the company, “butcher of the Royal Ballet”. Hand flapping self appointed experts damned him for filling the repertoire with his own works dealing with distasteful, everyday matters like sex, drugs and homosexuality; “the worst thing to have happened to the Royal Ballet,” they said.

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Kenneth MacMillan captured by Deborah MacMillan
Photo: © Deborah MacMillan

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“There was a monstrous campaign in the press to get rid of him,” remembers his widow, Deborah, 60, supervising the current string of revivals as head of Kenneth MacMillan and Partner, the company protecting her dead husband’s choreographic copyright, “If I’d had a gun I would have shot some of them. It irritates me that now he’s dead those same people are harping on about his greatness.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that MacMillan’s works have gained lustre with the passing of time, but nothing alters the wonder of twenty years of domestic bliss enjoyed by him and Deborah, two unlikely lovers from the racketing 1970s London arts world. “We both came from fragmented backgrounds,” agrees Deborah. She was virtually itinerant in the capital when she arrived here in 1970 from her native Australia. “I expected to model when I got here, but I was as fat as a pig,” she explains. “I come from a thin family and for the first time in my life my buttocks walked behind me in the street.” It was during these dog days waiting on tables and trying to lose weight that she met Kenneth MacMillan, who earned a modest career as a dancer but who was knighted in 1983 for his choreography. “We went on a blind date in 1971 to see Clint Eastwood in Play Misty For Me,” she remembers. “He asked me for my phone number and I couldn’t remember where I was staying. He thought it was a brush off.” MacMillan was at the height of his notoriety but unable to cope with internal company factions determined to be rid of him, almost universal outside condemnation and failing health brought on by depression and heavy drinking. She fell for his eccentricity and gentle humour, he was attracted by her strength and intelligence and a year and three months later Deborah gave birth to their only child, Charlotte. “He was the only man who ever said he wanted me to have his babies,” she remembers. They married in 1974 when Deborah’s divorce from her first marriage was finalised.

“It hasn’t been easy for Charlotte, either,” observes Deborah. “I’m sure she’s often wished both parents would pop their clogs.” Charlotte, 30, an accomplished photographer, has resolve d her relationship with her famous father by joining the family firm and helping her mother with the complexities of the current run of revivals at the ROH. “It was inevitable that I should dance,” she remembers, “but at the audition he made me do at the Royal Ballet School when I was 11, I suddenly sensed how important he was because all the people there were people who spent Christmas with us. I’d known them since I was born and I was utterly convinced they would never take me seriously. So when I got in, I said no. I felt slightly I had let my father down. But he had cleverly forced me to make the finite decision, one way or another, instead of just drifting into ballet because of who he was.”

Kenneth MacMillan created over 66 works between 1953 and 1992. Apart from forming a huge part of the Royal Ballet repertoire, they are among the most popular, and profitable, dance works in the world with more than fifteen companies abroad presenting today approximately fifty MacMillan ballets in cities from New York and Houston to Copenhagen, St Petersburg, Milan, Paris and Sydney with requests still pouring in. A conservative estimate based on one performance per month of each of those 50 ballets alone would bring in royalty fees of £¾ million per annum while the acquisition fees would probably total a similar sum.

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Deborah MacMillan captured by Charlotte MacMillan
Photo: © Charlotte MacMillan

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“Kenneth died of a heart attack,” she explains, “during a performance of Mayerling.” MacMillan, a former director of the Royal Ballet, left his wife in the in the auditorium during the second interval to visit the dancers backstage. He failed to return when the performance resumed, a worried Deborah hurried behind the scenes to find her husband dead in one of the dressing rooms. “Twelve years later and I’m still in love with him,” she says. “When I see his work, like these current productions I think, you clever old bugger - because their success is not all down to tradition. Most of the dancers we’re working with now never knew him, like Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. They have no baggage from the past, they are just going for the roles, just wanting to dance MacMillan and that makes Kenneth very here and now, and very relevant.”

His widow has not only benefited financially since his death but has also acquired a reputation as a grandee in the British dance world, wielding power among the great and the good on the Royal Opera House Board and Arts Council England, a Trustee of the Royal Academy of Dance and honorary memberships of the Boards of American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet. Pencil thin at a size ten and 5` 8” tall, she is striking in the Orchestra Stalls wearing her late husband’s extensive collection of 1930s Hollywood costume jewellery. But the MacMillan wealth and power is based on humble foundations. “Kenneth swore by my cakes,” reveals the grandee with a common touch. “His favourite was known in the family as the black bowel cake. Crammed full of fruit and left in the Aga all night it turned pitch black and I ran one off each week. I also did the gardening, the plumbing and the electrics. Kenneth was absolutely hopeless about the house.” It is sort of comforting for the rest of us to learn that the man acknowledged as a genius of dance had feet of clay after all.


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© Charlotte MacMillan