Macmillan Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's latest triple bill celebrates the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, in a programme of jarring contrasts: perky, gang rape, perky. Concerto and Elite Syncopations were created to show off dancers as classicists and as personalities. In the middle sits The Judas Tree, MacMillan's perplexing last ballet.

One of The Royal Ballet's defining choreographers, MacMillan was always fascinated by sexuality, creating erotic or violent duets. Sometimes the violence became a default position: when in doubt, add rape or prostitutes.

The action takes place on a building site that is both stylised and very naturalistic. Canary Wharf looms over Jock McFadyen's set design, which mixes a shimmering sense of colour with real scaffolding and burnt-out cars. Brian Elias's commissioned score is richly textured. But despite the realism of the set, the workmen lounging or driving themselves into tangled, muscular dancing are a symbolic society, not people with jobs to do.

MacMillan, who could create such sharply observed psychological studies, isn't doing that here. The ballet's one woman is set up as Madonna and whore, a feminine principle that fascinates and angers the foreman of the group – something, not someone. MacMillan drapes her in a sheet, gives her an apparent resurrection after death, makes her unreal while heaping violence upon her. He's certainly showing misogyny; how much is he also misogynist?

The Judas Tree is full of messages that don't add up – but there's something powerful in MacMillan's insistence. Inventive choreography slides into repetition, or is blurred by the lack of apparent reason or motive.

However confusing the ballet, the cast dig deep in dancing it. Leanne Benjamin is superb as the woman, damaged, bold and delicate. As the foreman, who leads the rape and betrays the one man who tries to protect the woman, Carlos Acosta hides his usual sunniness in sullen resentment, though he could have more drive. Edward Watson flings himself into the role of the friend.

Elite Syncopations is MacMillan's ragtime ballet. The band play live on stage, the dancers strut and show off, dressed in Ian Spurling's lurid leotards. The performances could be broader: Steven McRae's outrageously good timing makes him the funniest here.

In rep to 15 April (020 7240 1200)