The central piece, A Month In The Country, performed by an exceptional cast, is one of the most beautiful things I have seen at the Royal Ballet – or anywhere else. A melodrama of both thwarted and unrequited love in a wealthy 19th Century Russian manor, it is packed with delightful and detailed choreography. Nuñez can, of course be imperiously magnificent in grand roles. Here, as the unhappily married Natalia falling for Matthew Ball’s handsome young tutor Beliaev, she danced with deeply moving sensitivity. Every extension, tilt of her neck and restrained glance was filled with aching emotion. It was absolutely glorious.
Anna Rose O’Sullivan also shone as Natalia’s young ward Vera, who is girlishly smitten with Beliaev. From fabulously flickering feet as she raced across the stage en pointe to featherlight lifts (complete with swooning trembling leg) she is a joy to watch.
Ball brought a clarity and matinee idol charm to Beliaev, a role that requires pas de deux with three different partners. He danced flirtatiously with the maid (Leticia Dias), with elegant distance with Vera, and then with passionate longing in his sublime scenes with Natalia.
The gorgeous choreography and superb dancing are matched by Chopin’s beautiful score and Julia Trevelyan-Oman’s sumptuous sets. What an absolute jewel this is.
The closing piece, Rhapsody, is a classic crowd-pleasing confection of showboating virtuosity, especially for the male lead, set to Rachmaninoff.
It was created for the Queen Mother’s 80th and built around Mikhail Baryshnikov. Unsurprisingly, Marcelino Sambé seized every opportunity to flourish explosive jumps and turns. His muscular acrobatics are a contrast to the quicksilver finesse of Steven McCrae who has made the part his own in recent years, but there is great pleasure in both approaches. Sambé was matched on the opening show by the lyrical loveliness of Francesca Howard.
There is no narrative, just a succession of splendid solos, ravishing pas de deux and even some fun for the corps. It’s always a thrill and the company did it proud.
Ashton’s dancing requires precise technique with fiendishly difficult action below the waist while the upper body must remain serene and fluid. There is a particular line his work demands, subtly different from classical form, that can challenge even the finest. This was somewhat exposed in the opening piece, Scénes de Ballet.
Set to Stravinsky, this 1948 short ballet strived to explore a more ‘modern’ style than Ashton’s signature romanticism, inspired by the likes of Nijinska. The angular lines, mid-air changes of direction and sometimes purposefully ‘inelegant’ landings combine with some extraordinarily difficult footwork.
On the opening show, even the masterful Vadim Muntagirov looked a little unsure, matched by a corps that was a little ragged in places, not quite nailing the merciless geometrical precision of the choreography. The male pas de quatre of Luca Acri, David Donnelly, Calvin Richardson and Joseph Sissens, however, impressed.
It’s not one of my favourite pieces and the performances didn’t change my mind, but there is still much to admire and the other two works are an absolute delight.
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