Macmillan short works celebrated by The Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, London
March 20, 2024

The popularity of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets rests mainly on his full-length blockbusters: Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling and Manon, but this triple bill of one-act works gives evidence of the breadth and depth of his creative talents. They are mainly early ballets: Danses Concertantes from 1955; Different Drummer, 1984; and Requiem, premiered in Stuttgart in 1976.

Danses Concertantes reflects the era in gamin hairstyles, bold colours and fast, witty choreography, revealing MacMillan’s precocious and confident skill in structure and audacious use of ballet technique. It is perfectly matched with Stravinsky’s brassy score with jazzy undertones. The designs are by Nicholas Georgiadis and mark the beginning of a lifelong artistic relationship between designer and choreographer.

Joseph Sissens, Leo Dixon, Isabella Gasparini, Marco Masciari and Luca Acri
in Danses Concertantes
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

The music was taken at a blistering pace by conductor Koen Kessels and credit to repetiteur, Diedre Chapman, for clean ensemble work. Luca Acri was hugely impressive. Dressed in sunshine yellow, he accomplished the fast allegro and raised the bar for pirouettes per nanosecond. Isabella Gasparini, partnered by an almost unrecognisable Vadim Muntagirov, managed to look elegant at high speed and languid in the pas de deux while capturing an iconic image as she framed her eyes in black-gloved hands to give a mask effect.

Danses Concertantes is a ballet packed with clever ideas, as dancers pose by the wings, half offstage, while others dance centre stage. It’s a breathtaking twenty minutes and an impressive revival but very much fixed in its time.

Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck, is a tale of human degradation and misery yet in operatic and dramatic form it continues to draw audiences.

Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in Different Drummer
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

MacMillan plots out the story, presenting the doctor, a strange and terrifying, white-coated James Hay and the Captain, Thomas Whitehead, open-mouthed and bawling out orders as they humiliate and experiment on the hapless soldier. However, much of the story is more subtly told in fragments and images; Marie is held in a reverse crucifix form by the strange Christ-like figure, wearing a crown of thorns. He is kicked aside by Woyzeck who then hoists Marie up in crucifix form. The intimacy of the shaving scene has Woyzeck wielding the naked blade as he climbs over the body of his military superior giving a chilling prediction of the impending tragedy.

As Marie, Francesca Hayward, could be the perfect mother and wife but existing at the bottom of the pile she takes her pleasure where she can in a hand-to-mouth existence. Hayward captures so precisely the helplessness of her position while her actions play out as thoughtless and uncaring. She acts the whore, while making her audience care passionately for her. Francisco Serrano, strutting and posing, gave a terrific performance as the arrogant Drum Major. He seduces Marie remembering to adjust his uniform smartly as he strides off.

Thomas Whitehead in Kenneth MacMillan’s Different Drummer
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

Woyzeck was played by Marcelino Sambé one of the Royal Ballet’s most charismatic performers. His sheer presence and power make it difficult for him to inhabit this gormless, gutted loser. Despite that, he invested himself in the role body and soul, in a searing performance. After witnessing Marie with the Drum Major, his flat-footed walk of dejection was heartbreaking. His frenzied killing of Marie felt real as did his committed action in bringing about his own death in what can be an awkward moment. It’s a traumatising but utterly compelling ballet.

Requiem opens on a stage of brilliant lightness, bringing spiritual relief after the darkness of Different Drummer. Dedicated to the memory of John Cranko, MacMillan’s friend and colleague, it premiered in Stuttgart with a cast of Cranko’s favourite dancers, The Royal Opera House Board of the time considering the use of Gabriel Fauré’s music for dance to be sacrilegious.

Fauré’s Requiem, in contrast to more dramatic versions, comforts and consoles. The profound depths and sublime heights in the music find equivalence in massed movement and tableaux with Lauren Cuthbertson in a white robe as a gentle maternal figure raised on high. The corps slowly promenading in arabesque and tracing simple patterns of steps enhance the sense of loss and quiet acceptance. Matthew Ball’s solo of strength contrasts with anguished curled positions dressed, like a Biblical figure, in draped loin cloth. In the prayer of deliverance, it is Joseph Sissens who is lifted on high and supported by the men in the most fearful moment of the work before it resolves in the welcoming comfort of Paradise.

Melissa Hamilton and ensemble in Requiem
from MacMillan Celebrated by The Royal Ballet
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

It is Melissa Hamilton who is the outstanding presence. She achieves so much in the economy of her expression, matched with a technique of matchless beauty. The ballet brings an uplifting note, complemented by heavenly voices from the off-stage chorus and soloists, the perfect end to the evening.

The triple-bill of Danses Concertantes, Different Drummer and Requiem is at The Royal Opera House, London to April 13, 2024.

It is also live in cinemas from April 9 to 14.