When the brainy experimental choreographer Wayne McGregor was appointed choreographer- in-residence for the Royal Ballet in 2006 there were gasps all round - of hope, of horror, mostly of surprise. The first post-holder in 14 years, McGregor did not even have a background in ballet: he had learned ballroom and disco as a boy and studied contemporary dance at college. He had begun his dance career as a highly distinctive soloist - all elongated limbs and articulated joints, like some restless, mutant hybrid of a stick insect and a computer animation. That hyperactive style continued to mark the works McGregor made for his own dance troupe, Random, as well as the increasing number of commissions he began to receive from ballet companies.
In fact, ballet dancers often bring to the stage a particular combination of elasticity and control-freakery that suits McGregor's work well. The director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, was certainly aware of both the contrasts and the common ground when she offered McGregor the job. Still, despite the success of his previous work for the Royal Ballet - especially Chroma (2006) - this was not a safe appointment. So a great deal was riding on Infra (13-26 November), McGregor's first piece as house choreographer.
As the curtain rose, the first thing that struck the viewer was Julian Opie's set, with a long LED screen suspended above the stage, across which moved simple animated figures. They may have been just outlines made of light, but they looked exactly like commuters crossing a bridge. The three dancers on stage - Edward Watson, Paul Kay and Jonathan Watkins - did not move like us at all. But nor did they move like ballet dancers. Their spines wiggled and undulated through strange torques, their limbs looked as if they were about to become dislocated, their bodies seemed constantly to be multitasking. You could all but sense the buzz of neurons firing in all directions at once as Max Richter's score overlaid plaintive fragments of melody with electronic static and whistles.
Classical ballet is underpinned by a sense of harmony: confluence of sound and image, proportion in movement and expressiveness in action. Infra seems driven by dissonance. There is no obvious connection between set, sound and action. The dancers are racked by physical tics and stutters.
That is par for the course with McGregor, but Infra has a powerful new ingredient: emotion. McGregor's choreography has always been fascinating, but has often felt distant. In this new work, it felt like a glimpse into the inner lives of Opie's anonymous people. When Watson arched his spine away from a jutting hip, his leg simultaneously flicking outwards at a crazy angle, the extraordinary movement read like an ordinary feat we must perform every day: keep our balance through pressures and conflicting impulses.
After the opening male trio, much of Infra was a series of extremely complicated male-female duets. These were restless, spiky mismatches, all jabbing feet, sudden swerves and offbeat interlockings - human contact as patterns of interference. The vision built in intensity as six couples gradually filled the stage, each as slippy and twitchy as the next, generating an overwhelming mass of small detail.
The piece then calmed and grew more intimate as it moved towards its close. A solitary Eric Underwood seemed adrift in a sea of strange sounds - fuzzy static pierced by echoing bleeps, like submarine signals. Watson and Mara Galeazzi were locked in their own, introspective worlds, indifferent to a duet of departure that left Lauren Cuthbertson alone, her body sagging with grief.
Then came McGregor's coup de théâtre. Wave upon wave of people - Opie's figures - came to life, simply walking across the stage, indifferent to the sobbing figure in their midst. Cuthbertson eventually slipped into the undertow of the crowd, walking offstage as she merged with the anonymous human tide. This sweeping theatrical gesture, bolder and simpler than any we had seen before from McGregor, is the emotional heart of the piece.
One couple remained, Watson and Marianela Nuñez. Their partnering was softer than before: Nuñez more pliant, Watson more attentive.
That final duet, and the preceding grand gesture, suggest that McGregor has absorbed something from ballet into his own choreography - a shot of Romantic feeling, a glimpse of classical harmony. Infra vindicates his appointment to the Royal Ballet: both he and the company are winners here.
Pick of the week
This Nutcracker season, Peter Wright's is the best of the bunch.
Matthew Bourne's Edward Scissorhands
Sadler's Wells, London EC1
Nutcracker too sugary? Bitter-sweet fable may be more to your taste.
The Thief of Baghdad
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London WC2
A new Arabian Nights adventure for kids (eight-plus) by William Tuckett.