This is a breath-taking, not to be missed evening of three short ballets by Kenneth Macmillan. They span his career. Danse Concertantes with music by Igor Stravinsky was commissioned in 1955 and has been performed sixty five times by The Royal Ballet. Different Drummer had its first performance at the ROH in 1984 and has been danced only twenty three times since at the ROH. Requiem, with Gabriel Faure’s famous music, has been staged fifty times by the Royal ballet and had its premiere in Stuttgart in 1976 and entered the Royal Ballet’s repertory in 1983.

When Macmillan had a heart attack and died at a performance of his ballet, Mayerling, in 1962, he was best known and loved for more narrative works such as Mayerling, Romeo and Juliet and Manon. On the other hand, Danse Cocertantes, his youthful first work, was an immediate hit, with its dazzling sets and costumes, its reds, yellows and black seldom seen on a ballet set. In fact they seem as fresh today as they did seventy years ago. Stravinsky’s music fizzes with wit, yet is held within the sharpest discipline. The marching soldiers parody themselves with stunning irony and yet remain a force to be reckoned with. The whole ballet moves effortlessly from circus to romance, just as the music. The abstract perfection of the choreography is a masterclass in what the body can achieve in the right hands, and yet never loses sight of classical rules. As a Principal Choreographer, classical ballet was Macmillan’s first love and remained a foundation for all his works. Nor can I imagine the ballet being better danced or presented. Credit must be shared among the cast which included Isabella Gasparini, Vadim Muntagirov Luca Acri.

Nevertheless, the next presentation, Different Drummer, soars into another space altogether. If Danse Concertantes could be described as a brilliantly drilled exercise, Different Drummer is entirely led by the emotions. The story is taken both from Buchner’s play, Woyzeck and Berg’s opera, Wozzeck but it inhabitants its own space where extreme emotions, from the purest love to the murderous rage, are expressed through the body. The soldier kills his mistress but that is only a small part of the story. It is as if the confusion and despair inside Woyzeck’s head has taken physical form. To me, it is the outstanding work of the three, even though the least popular. However I confess to my own back story because in 1984 when Macmillan was creating the ballet, The Times asked me to interview him. To my intense excitement and curiosity, he invited me to watch him working with the two principles as he developed the choreography.

I have never forgotten how closely he worked with the dancers, often suggesting, rather than imposing. If a dancer indicated that a pose was just too difficult he found another way towards what wanted. He was gentle, yet absolutely in the moment, reaching towards what I presume he could already see in his mind’s eye. It was impossible not to remember this when I watched the terrifying movements that poor tortured Woyzeck uses to express his agony of spirit. Then Schoenberg’s music become almost incidental. It is a long way from The Nutcracker. And yet the beauty of true art remains.

A word too for Marcelino Sambo who takes on this extraordinarily testing role, on this occasion with coaching from Wayne Eagling who himself danced the role, as indeed did Kevin O’Hare, the Director of The Royal Ballet.

‘Requiem’, the third ballet, is different once more from the two preceeding. For one thing Faure’s glorious music is very well known to all concert goers and participants in traditional religious funerals. It was brave of Macmillan to take something that stands in such perfection already and add in dancers. The aria ‘Pie Jesu Domine dona eis requiem, sempiternam requiem’ (Holy Lord Jesus, give them rest, eternal rest) is guaranteed to make even the eyes of unbelievers water.

The ballet was written to mourn the death of Macmillan’s close friend, choreographer, John Cranko, and is filled with love. The utter bleakness of Different Drummer has no place here, and although it is hard to pick out individual dancers, Lauren Cuthbertson, Matthew Ball, Melissa Hamilton, Joseph Sissens and Valentino Zuccehetti are some of those who move gracefully from earthly sorrow to paradise. The great dancer, Darcy Bussell, was the coach. The orchestra at all three ballets is conducted by Koen Kessels who clearly found no problem with what are demanding scores. Soprano Isabela Diaz and Baritone Josef Jeongmeen Ahn sing with the Royal Artist Chorus.

Perhaps this programme is not for the faint-hearted who like to bring children or grandchildren to admire long legs and elegant necks, but it is a mind-bending evening which fully justifies The Royal Ballet’s decision to bring together these three ballets in celebration of Kenneth Macmillan’s innovative genius.

Photo credit: Jimmy Parra