Choreographic rigour

By: Mar. 21, 2024
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Review: DANSES CONCERTANTES/DIFFERENT DRUMMER/REQUIEM, Royal Opera House Triple bills can go either way: three different choreographers, or three works by the same creative.

The Royal Ballet’s latest is categorically the latter, featuring Danses Concertantes, Different Drummer and Requiem all by Kenneth MacMillan. MacMillan was trained at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, danced for the company, and was also Director (1970-77) and Principal Choreographer (1977-92) of The Royal Ballet during his career, so one assumes his work is in safe hands at the Royal Opera House.
The evening opens with MacMillan’s first work for Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet commissioned by Ninette de Valois in 1955 - Danses Concertantes. Other firsts include the collaboration with a Stravinsky score and working with the designer Nicholas Georgiadis. The work was initially so well received that MacMillan decided to stop dancing, so he could focus all of his time and energy on choreography, and watching the work, one can understand why.
J Sissens, L Dixon, I Gasparini, M Masciari, L Acri
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton
It's very rare that something is actually chic, or absurd, and Danses Concertantes is unequivocally both throughout. The language is dense and original: think elbows, wrists and fingers everywhere. At times aggressively staccato, elsewhere molten lava.
It's easy to acknowledge lots of influences; Nijinska, Balanchine and Ashton. But this fact doesn't take away from the originality of the work. Who knew soft-shoe shuffle and self-masquerade port de bras were all the rage in 1950s ballet? Not me!
Most interesting is the choreographic rigour, and how this demands that good dancers become even better (Luca Acri for the win). There's little space for interpretation, as every action has a verging on invisible preparation and definitive, emphasised finish (we call this terre à terre in the biz). And the cast are more than rising to the challenge.
The second work is Different Drummer (1984), an altogether contrasting experience. Here we witness MacMillan continuing to explore the psychological narrative through dance. MacMillan found inspiration in Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck, which looks at exploitation, adultery, mental illness, murder and ultimately (contentious) suicide. 
The original cast included Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri (both coaching this outing), with 2024 performances seeing debuts by Marcelino Sambé as Woyzeck and Francesca Hayward as Marie.
Some narrative works highlight the absence of text or spoken word in dance, and Different Drummer is definitely one of them.There's a huge amount of storytelling to deliver in just 45 minutes, to the point that character depth can lack, consequently meaning one feels less connected to the protagonists. 
That said, there's of course all the MacMillan narrative hallmarks one has come to expect. Buckets of atmosphere (largely due to Yolanda Sonnabend’s depth of design), emotionally fueled pas de deux in a league of their own, and solo vehicles of immense expressionism.
Hayward brings major presence to the unfortunate Marie who ends up slain, being dragged around the stage, and Sambé keeps confirming himself as a true exponent of MacMillan. His expansive, dramatic execution absolutely filling the house, and building in refinement with each role debut.
Lauren Cuthbertson & Matthew Ball
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton
Closing the evening is Requiem (1976); MacMillan’s ode to the choreographer, and close friend, John Cranko who passed in 1973.
The work was created on the Stuttgart Ballet (where Cranko directed until his death) as the Royal Opera House board of governors felt the choice of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem an inappropriate choice at the time…imagine that! However, it later joined the Royal Ballet repertoire in 1983.
One can only imagine how healing the creation period was for the dancers of Stuttgart Ballet. MacMillan, and Sonnabend again, create a space beyond size and location, and one that focuses on feeling, for the dancers and observers, rather than literal understanding.
Group sections evoke planetary cycles, and solos, flurries of devotion and moments of reflective stillness. Matthew Ball, in biblical loincloth, offers natural, uncluttered dancing, and Lauren Cuthbertson speaks with a spiritual urgency I haven't seen in the role before, which works well.
The overall vibe is very 70s, and I'm unsure whether that's a compliment. However, the entire evening confirms MacMillan’s scope as a choreographer, but we knew that already right?
Danses Concertantes/Different Drummer/Requiem runs at the Royal Opera House until 13 April
Photo credits: Tristram Kenton