Medical Experimentation: The Ballet

By Gilbert, Jenny | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), February 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Medical Experimentation: The Ballet

Gilbert, Jenny, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


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

Royal Ballet triple bill Royal Opera House LONDON

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.

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