“It is not an easy ballet”, The Guardian’s critic Mary Clarke said of Different Drummer “but it should be seen especially by people who think ballet is just Swan Lake”. In his choice of title MacMillan was quoting from Henry Thoreau’s Walden. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

Different Drummer was inspired by George Büchner’s play Woyzeck, the story of a soldier and his descent into insanity. MacMillan told the writer Rachel Billington that he had arrived at his subject when he produced Strindberg’s play Dance of Death in 1983, an experience which re-stimulated his interest in expressionism. He also knew Berg’s opera Wozzeck and this clearly influenced his choice of composers for Different Drummer - Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg, along with Berg’s contemporary in the Second Viennese School, Anton Webern. MacMillan had similarly drawn on Schoenberg and Webern when choosing music for My Brother, My Sisters (1978).

Written in 1836, Büchner’s play, based on an actual murder case, was a powerful indictment of the exploitation of the poor by the military and medical establishments of the time. Its antihero is forced to earn extra money to support his mistress Marie and their child by performing menial jobs for his captain and taking part in degrading medical experiments. As Woyzeck’s health deteriorates, Marie turns her attentions to a handsome drum major. Woyzeckconfronts the drum major who beats him up. Persecuted and humiliated, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death before he drowns himself in a bath.

A programme note read: “Kenneth MacMillan wishes to thank Yolanda Sonnabend for her contribution to the creation of this ballet.” But five days before the premiere MacMillan made a decision to abandon her designs and kept only her costumes. Instead Different Drummer was performed on an almost bare stage stripped back to a few flats with the decor from the opera Andrea Chenier, then in production at Covent Garden, decked around the walls, while a large bath stood centre stage.

The ballet, like Büchner’s play, is fragmentary, but mesmeric in the accumulation of these fragments. It opens with Woyzeck and Andres his fellow-soldier dutifully marching while on guard. Then Woyzeck’s torturers arrive and MacMillan progressively reveals the humiliations visited on him by the Doctor and the Captain; his relationship with Marie and his cuckolding by the Drum Major; Woyzeck’smounting despair and hysteria; the inexorable descent into murder and a suicide. These events are rendered through the prism of Woyzeck’s tortured psyche. As the ballet ends, Woyzeck’s and Marie’s corpses are prepared for an autopsy; the Doctor and the Captain wheel mortuary trolleys triumphantly across the stage. But in a suggestion of an apotheosis - and mirroring Schoenberg’s score - Woyzeckand Marie seem transfigured; united in another world while their bodies are left in the hands of their earthly tormenters. However, the suggestion of transfiguration did not survive in MacMillan’s subsequent reworking of Different Drummer for the Deutsche Oper ballet in Berlin and the Royal Ballet’s later restagings.

MacMillan draws variously on Büchner’s religious referents. In the original, Marie, plagued by guilt at her relationship with the Drum Major, reads the Biblical story of the woman taken in adultery. She comforts her (and Woyzeck’s) illegitimate child by telling him a fairy story. When she returns to the Bible, she finds there the story of Mary Magdalen. Balletically, Marie, as it were, becomes Mary Magdalen, washing the feet of a soldier, who reveals his identity with a crown of thorns. Elsewhere, a simple duet for Woyzeck and his friend Andres is suggestive of a piet´.

The layers of choreographic movement echo the ballet’s title; the perfect drills of the corps de ballet, soldiers who march with elegantly pointed feet; a more individual language for Andres, Woyzeck’s friend; the Doctor and the Captain are expressionist ciphers. But for Woyzeck there is graphically distorted movement – worried backward jumps, shoulder spins - which speaks his alienation.

Different Drummer is a complex, difficult work with which several critics struggled. But to the author Rachel Billington it had “the compulsive, nightmare feeling of a painting brought to life.” Billington also noted afterimages of the First World War. MacMillan, she sensed, was exorcising demons; railing at the fates that had so reduced his own father, who had been gassed in the conflict. Clement Crisp of The Financial Times spoke for the work’s many advocates when he characterised the ballet as “uncomfortable, haunting, brave”.

  • First performance: Covent Garden, London, 24 February 1984

  • Company: The Royal Ballet

  • Cast: Wayne Eagling, Alessandra Ferri, Stephen Jefferies, Guy Niblett, David Drew, Jonathan Burrows, Jonathan Cope, Antony Dowson, Ross MacGibbon, Bruce Sansom, Stephen Sheriff

  • Music: Anton Webern, Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1; Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4

  • Design: Yolanda Sonnabend

  • Benesh notation score: Monica Parker (1984) Working score.