Royal Ballet triple bill, Royal Opera House, London

The subject matter is not pretty, but Kenneth MacMillan's 'difficult' drama deserves this strongly cast revival
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The Independent Culture

Reviving a ballet that slipped off the grid two or three decades ago is usually easy to justify. Older fans are happy to renew the memory, the young want to see what they missed. But to revive a work that was widely disliked first time around can only mean one thing: that someone still feels very strongly that everyone back then got it wrong.

In the case of Different Drummer, that someone has a point. Kenneth MacMillan's 1984 adaptation of the Woyzeck story is too easily dismissed as dour and difficult. Once you accept that dance doesn't have to be pretty, a universe of disturbing subject matter opens up, and much of MacMillan's creative genius went into stretching the conventions of ballet to express various states of human distress. The difficulty now, as then, presumably, is not that ballet audiences are too shallow to be interested in, say, the mental torments and drug-induced hallucinations of a depressed Prussian foot soldier, but that they don't come sufficiently clued up. Would it hurt, in the essay-packed Royal Opera House programme book, to give a synopsis? Something along the lines of ... Woyzeck, a soldier, supplements his meagre wages by offering his body for medical experiments, whose effects distort his view of the world. Not everyone knows the original play, or Berg's opera.

I, like many seeing the ballet for the first time, was by turns gripped, bewildered, awestruck and appalled. Here was a story, told without words or pity, in which the protagonist's desperate state of mind took precedence over incident. Jonathan Howells's creepy Doctor moves in a crab-like, sideways slink, insinuating himself between the legs of his victim-patient. Thiago Soares's Captain is a stiff-necked military dummy, barking apoplectic (and eerily silent) commands, while impressive platoons of soldiers, bayonets on rifles, stream across the scene like leaping deer, to no evident purpose – which is precisely the point. MacMillan (who was his own stage designer in this instance) was almost certainly inspired in much of this imagery by the work of the anti-Nazi Expressionist painter George Grosz.

Edward Watson gives an astounding performance as Woy-zeck. Wan and vulnerable, a prisoner of his big, bony physique, he draws the spectator into his grisly victimhood by pure force of will, anguish coursing through his sinews. When girlish Leanne Benjamin, the flirt to whom he entrusts his fragile hope, taunts and betrays him with the preposterous Drum Major (a macho Martin Harvey) his murderous frenzy comes as a kind of relief. How inspired of MacMillan to choose, as music, the glimmering late-late-romanticism of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (gorgeously played under Barry Wordsworth). The contrast of feeling is excruciating.

There's more strong meat to follow with MacMillan's 1962 Rite of Spring. From the slip-slide sinuosity of its opening bassoon melody, to the conch-horn bellow of its mighty crescendos, the tension never lets up, building like blood in a blocked artery until it bursts, painfully, violently, yet with a horrible satisfaction. As for the choreography, MacMillan's vision has nothing to do with the great annual thaw. His generalised primitivism takes us further back in time, not so much to comment on mob rule, as to tap into a seething, instinctive, pre-civilised state. And when those 46 bodies swish the floor in a show of mass synchronised swimming, or raise thickets of stretched arms, it's still powerfully cathartic.

That said, it was more likely Wayne McGregor's Chroma that drew most of the matinee crowd. With its walloping James Bond blare of a score (Joby Talbot out of The White Stripes), its ravishing white cube of a set (John Pawson) and its feinting, juddering, yanking moves, it is at once mesmerising, hip, and truly exotic.

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