On June 18, 2014, Richard Fielder in his Conversation Hour on 702 ABC, Sydney, interviewed Lady Deborah MacMillan. Lady MacMillan is an artist, and wife of the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, dancer, and brilliant, yet controversial, artistic director and chief choreographer of the Royal Ballet.
Her story was intriguing, full of poignant anecdotes of particular people, places and events – prior to and with Sir Kenneth. Her early years recollected, relationships and her bohemian life in the 1960s while at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, and other avant-garde encounters in London by the early 1970s – ostracised for some years by her family, art teaching, modelling, taking parts in drag shows, reassessing her life and the very serious and passionate interest in art that developed in the last years of her schooling. How she and MacMillan met and travelled was vividly characterised, along with relationships with other influential people who could change the course of history in their own lives and in the world of classical ballet. Lady MacMillan reflected on her husband’s “ferocious concentration” yet “crippling stage fright,” his move to choreography and the controversy that surrounded his provocative productions that, in time, re-framed the canon. Her long-term project since his death in late 1992 of protecting and advancing his legacy with her commitment celebrated in Brisbane, in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s production of Romeo and Juliet, under Li Cunxin’s artistic direction, performed by the Queensland Ballet.
As a researcher dedicated to understanding how creativity evolves through individual and collective mis-recognition in the alchemy of social relations amongst teachers and their students in different fields of practice in schools, universities and other institutions, there was much to reflect on in Lady MacMillan’s finely crafted tale. She recounted graphically, for example, her school art class’s first meeting with their new art teacher in their final years at school.
“She…came to meet the various art classes and there was an exhibition up of our work…she came steaming in and said she ‘had never seen anything so shoddy in her life.'”
The art teacher was none other than Margaret Fink, who some years later would become the highly-acclaimed film producer, who at that time had just taken up a position as an art teacher at Wenona in North Sydney where, then, Deborah Williams attended school. Fink was “young, attractive and forceful” and “we were completely stunned.”
Their first encounter could be viewed a symbolic flashpoint rich in contradictory tendencies: it unsettled Deborah and her peers as senior students. Fink’s actions no doubt cast uncertainty in their minds about their own abilities while her “with-it-ness” and formidable presence captivated them. Angered that the students didn’t bother enough about how to exhibit their artworks, Fink quietly showed that she had little tolerance for what had gone on before, while conceivably wanting more for the students than they wanted for themselves. Both the teacher and students had to negotiate one another’s reasoning and untangle how to proceed. Much was at stake, final school examinations were fast approaching.
All the same, Lady MacMillan was quick to point out that Fink “did not hate their work.” Whether this was so is debatable. Rather, I’d suggest that Fink had the necessary social tact to have the students believe in what they were doing, while in front of the class, and behind the scenes would have worked systematically to make possible subtle changes to the students’ performances and resultant artworks which they credited as their own. Lady MacMillan reflected “she was brilliant, absolutely terrific” and “prepared everybody for the Leaving Certificate with great verve,” tacitly acknowledging how their dialectical collaboration with Fink was redeemed through the group’s solidarity and their identification with the teacher as well as the recognition they received including their examination success.
Ironically today, with so much attention paid to professional teaching standards intended to make teachers accountable, Fink may not have gotten away with such bold conduct which nonetheless indicated very real ethical intentions to improve the students’ performances. The life of Lady MacMillan may have not unfolded as it has without Fink’s intervention.
From my own studies, the capacity of virtuoso art teachers to enact similar kinds of transformations with their students is not uncommon. They tread perhaps an even finer line than Fink, though today they need to at least appear to conform with professional teaching standards which largely assume an incontrovertible relation between means and ends. However, art teachers are obliged to get on with the day-to-day realities of limiting and capitalising on shortfalls as they arise in their students’ actions to realise creative ends in their artworks, while students claim their creative authenticity and the teacher’s agency is repressed. Professional standards are unable to grasp the resourcefulness and adaptability of this kind of knowledge-practice, which is at its best when it cannot be pinned down, and thus, it ironically remains ignored, compromised or regarded with suspicion.
Interlaced with its suspense, obsessive commitment, desire, belief, trust, uncertainty, challenge, triumphs, low points, knowledge and ethical ambiguity, Lady MacMillan’s story had many hallmarks of how creative performances originate within an enduring investment in the creative life. Her encounter with Fink was part of the story, including the necessity of its social obligations that play a key function in the broader network of symptoms characteristic of creative practice, which were subtlety re-conceived in the telling of different events and reverberated like a leitmotif.