DANCE / The prince of new territory: Sir Kenneth MacMillan died at Covent Garden on Thursday. Judith Mackrell pays tribute

IT was an extravagantly painful and theatrical conclusion to one of ballet's most creative careers. As the curtain came down on the funereal epilogue to Mayerling, the heroine's coffin had just been lowered into the ground, the men in black had taken guard over the grave and a single mourner had left the darkened stage in tears. Less than a minute later Jeremy Isaacs and Anthony Dowell appeared on stage to announce that the creator of the ballet, Sir Kenneth MacMillan had suffered a heart attack during the final act, and died.

Members of the audience wept, the dancers, who presumably knew nothing, looked stunned. And what made the irony more tragic was that what we'd just been watching had been a triumphant revival of the work which more than any other characterised the audacity and rarity of MacMillan's art.

Despite his knighthood and his unquestioned seniority in the dance profession, MacMillan remained a provocateur. His last ballet The Judas Tree contained some of the most shocking and original choreography he'd ever made while its subject matter - gang rape in London Docklands, male bonding and the mystification of women - had many critics grinding their teeth. Yet if the ballet's political correctness was for some of us in doubt, it was also typical of the lack of queasiness with which MacMillan pushed against the constraints and conventions of his art. Disregarding cosiness, prettiness, good taste and sometimes plausibility, he was constantly looking for ways to make the gracious, stylised medium of ballet express a grittier, more complex truth about the real world.

He tried anything - sequences of old film in Anastasia, spoken text in Isadora, a caricature expressionist vocabulary of movement in The Different Drummer. Some experiments were panned - MacMillan never seemed concerned about protecting his position. Others like Mayerling showed him pushing the medium of ballet - particularly the three-act ballet - into a completely new territory.

The plot itself is an unlikely enough starting point. It details the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf who was crippled by incestuous passion, political intrigue, madness and an unhappy marriage and who finally died in a suicide pact with his mistress Mary Vetsera. The ballet overall offers no concessions to the box office. Though it exacts a gruelling performance from its lead male dancer, there is no single glamorous ballerina role to pull in the crowds. The score, arranged by John Lanchbery, is put together from bits of austere, fragmented, even dreary Liszt. And the story is hard going, told with a confusing, staccato rhythm with no consoling vindication of Love or Right.

Yet all these 'drawbacks' are perfectly suited to a ballet that tries to engage with the grimmer complications of human personality, which uses movement to show us things that can't be nailed down by words. In Rudolf's duets with his various women we see a complexity of emotion that it would take pages to write down. The extreme dynamics, the bizarre shapes, the see- sawing rhythms, the blatant erotic charge of the movements have their roots in the classical vocabulary yet they take us far away to areas of neurotic and sexual wasteland. The rough cruelty with which Rudolf manhandles his wife speaks of his morbid disgust with himself and her; the duets with his ex- mistress Marie Larich speak of a terrible mutual battle of lasciviousness and manipulation while his dances with Vetsera in their ugly greed, their lavish tenderness and sensuous exhaustion speak of two people pushing each other to destructive excess.

It's arguable that the ballet tries to cover too much other ground, confusingly hinting at political machinations and intrigues at court. Yet the resulting ambiguities also tell us much about the increasingly chaotic state of Rudolf's mind. The individual perfomances on Thursday night too were astonishingly lucid within the coils of their conflicting motives and emotions. Nicola Tranah was a wayward self-indulgent Empress Elisabeth; Darcey Bussell a sexily ruthless Mitzi Caspar; Lesley Collier positively scintillated with lust, evil and pain while Viviana Durante showed Mary Vetsera as a woman wilfully determined to gorge herself on sensation.

As Rudolf himself Irek Mukhamedov found the perfect mixture of melodrama and realism. The madder he became the more blackly his eyes glittered, the more caricatured were his moves. Yet the subtler disintegration of his personality was always clear: the unappeasable sexual hunger, the emotional disengagement, the physical and social clumsiness of a man born to power but victim of everybody else's manipulations.

It was a masterly performance but ever since Mukhamedov joined the Royal he has blossomed in the unusually close and creative relationship that he formed with MacMillan. The latter created two ballets specially for him (Winter Dreams and The Judas Tree), cast him in several revivals (Romeo and Juliet and Manon) and fostered his partnerships with Darcey Bussell. Given the success of the current Mayerling revival and the vigours of the choreography of The Judas Tree, it seemed that MacMillan still had much to give Mukhamedov and everyone else. We are now left to mourn not only the man but also the many ballets we have lost through his sudden and premature death.

(Photograph omitted)