The Royal Ballet Back on Stage

MIKE DIXON applauds The Royal Ballet's return to Covent Garden with a live audience

It is a slightly eerie sight. All the stalls seats removed, and in their place the socially distanced Royal Opera House orchestra, commanded by conductor Jonathan Lo. This young musician is already familiar to audiences in Birmingham and Leeds, where his instinctive understanding of dance tempi is a deeply satisfying aspect of BRB and Northern Ballet performances. Here, with The Royal Ballet, he raises the bar, commencing with Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty overture, the players sounding better and more inspired than they have in years.

Kevin O’Hare’s astute choice of repertoire is designed to appeal to every stripe of dance lover. So a big bravo to him for this exciting evening, which opens with an ensemble from Untouchable by Hofesh Schechter. The Lakeside pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake receives a sensitive and well-acted interpretation in the capable hands of Akane Takada and Federico Bonelli. Cathy Marston provides a well-crafted new duet of parting and reconciliation for Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke, where Kaneko is left bereft at the conclusion. This type of duet used to be a cliché of modern ballet a couple of decades ago, but in Marston’s delicate hands the genre demonstrates strong survival skills. Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano perform part of Balanchine’s Diamonds, but we have something with the soft lustre of a pearl here, rather than the purity of a faceted diamond. The MacMillan Carousel duet which follows certainly hits the hotspot in the performances of Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball. This is not the best MacMillan choreography, but features athletic moments which the two dancers exploit to the full in bravura Soviet style, but with moments both tender and humorous. The audience love it. An extract from Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour enjoys a burnished account from the entire cast.

Ashton’s The Dream is represented by Valentino Zucchetti (Puck) and William Bracewell (Oberon) accompanied by four Fairies in the Scherzo with its zippy roulades of batterie and spiralling turns. Both men give full value to the relentlessly difficult steps and maintain a joyous spirit throughout. This is followed by Laura Morera (Titania) and Alexander Campbell (Oberon) in the final pas de deux, bringing fresh eyes to this established crowd-pleaser. Morera is an intelligent, sharp dancer, and not ideal for Titania, who is a bit of an airhead, but she reaches an accommodation with the character. Campbell is a superb partner but his laid-back personality is not suited to the darker hues of Oberon. Nevertheless, between them, they create something believable and personal, bringing out new aspects of Ashton’s choreography. 

What follows is the highlight of the evening: Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé in the Elssler pas de deux from Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, thriving on the extra space of the empty stage and opening up the thrill throttle almost immediately. This is a performance characterised by reckless speed and excitement. O’Sullivan will become a great Lise: bright, smiling personality, articulated upper body, sharp footwork and, most importantly, a good jump. When she enters during the coda, the audience clap in rhythm to her sparkling footwork. Sambé’s virtuosity and showmanship thrive on this technically exacting role, which suits his blistering pace, musicality and big elastic jump. Just as importantly, he holds the iconic frozen poses which punctuate his variation; and in the one-arm flambeau lift at the end he holds O’Sullivan aloft for a full twelve seconds with almost contemptuous ease. This is dance theatre at its best.

In the Romeo and Juliet Balcony pas de deux, Francesca Hayward is so delectably perfect that she defies all criticism. Every step is wonderfully executed, her beautiful face radiantly reflects every changing mood, and she embodies the very spirit of the choreography. Her partner, César Corrales, however, seems curiously ill at ease, tends to dance through the phrases of the choreography and struggles with some aspects of Romeo.

Akane Takada, Calvin Richardson and Edward Watson perform in I Now, I Then from Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. Takada is wasted in a section where she is reduced to the role of voyeur, Watson employs his remarkable limbs to their usual disorienting effect and Calvin Richardson is impressive as Watson’s younger self. It must be said that, emotionally, the music does all the heavy lifting. Natalia Osipova performs a solo full of pedestrian steps from Cherkaoui’s Medusa minus her characteristic intensity.

Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov restore the Don Quixote pas de deux to its classical Petipa roots, discarding the usual wrist flicking and head tossing, and concentrating on the purity of the steps. The result is not always exciting but is carefully shaped and immaculately executed by these two great artists. A version of MacMillan’s colourful Elite Syncopations concludes the evening, with prominent roles given to Yasmine Naghdi, Claire Calvert, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton, Paul Kay and Luca Acri. It is simply wonderful to see a full ensemble of dancers back on the Royal Opera House stage and it offers an optimistic vision of the future for us all.