If a recent survey has done its sums right, the average Royal Opera House-goer is markedly younger and less affluent – for which read more open-minded – than commonly believed. But you'd never have guessed it at the Royal Ballet premiere of Mats Ek's Carmen when – in the stalls circle at least – the dominant feeling was one of frozen disbelief, verging on blind fear.
No close acquaintance with Bizet's operatic Carmen can prepare for the shock of Ek's dance heroine. She shouts, she grunts, she smokes cigars as big as Tampax Super. When she gets the hots for a man she fans her nether regions with her skirt, and the morning after a conquest she is as bug-eyed and charmless as the most degraded stop-out.
Mats Ek – the Swede whose radical art the Royal Ballet's new director wants to import more of – is ballet's great de-bunker of romantic myth. Swan Lake and Giselle have gone under his stripping-knife and emerged as complex modern stories that grapple with harsh truths. Beauty, his work says, is a lie to which we can no longer subscribe. It's no good saying that Carmen is a low-life man-eater, then showing her all floaty and balancing on point. The dance has to be true to the gristle and guts for her story to resonate today.
And resonate it does – loud, if not completely clear. At one viewing, I couldn't begin to interpret more than half the extraordinary gestures Ek's characters employ, still less pinpoint meaning in the steps – wheeling, gawky, and manic to a degree that resembles obsessive-compulsive disorder. But Ek's dance language is so rich in allusion that much of it works subliminally. Even the set is no more than a cartoon thought-bubble of Spain. Yet single elements yield multiple connections – like the outsize cannonball on which Carmen sits, legs splayed, to view her prey. It's not just a reminder of Don Jose's army duty, but – by the way she fondles it – a cipher for something fleshier.
Sylvie Guillem is a force of nature in the central role, almost repellent in the rawness of her desires (one duet has her grab Jose's foot and almost stuff it down the front of her dress). Massimo Murru is a convincingly unmanned Jose, Jonathan Cope hilarious as a show-off smarmball of a matador. By the end, when a wildly garrulous gypsy drags Carmen's fresh corpse away, you realise Ek's humour is almost as grim as his sense of tragedy.
Over at the South Bank, Kim Brandstrup and his company Arc were working equally offbeat wonders with dance as an under-the-skin vehicle for drama. Brothers takes episodes from three Russian novels and intersplices them, art-house cinema-style, to examine the ways men deal with failure, loss and guilt, all without reference to the events that triggered them. Mystifying? Well, it's hardly the bluffer's guide to Dostoevsky. But thanks partly to inspired design and music – conjuring not only a Siberian prison camp but also the vast, bleak wastes of the Russian soul – the why and wherefore hardly matter. Subtleties of insight and articulation draw the viewer in, regardless.
'Carmen': ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 24 April; 'Brothers': Richmond Theatre (020 8940 0088), Mon, Blackpool Grand (01253 290190), Fri, and touring