For anyone with a love of The Royal Ballet’s ‘old’ repertoire, this final programme of the season is like several Christmases occurring together. No sign of the modish and the extreme, and in their place glorious music, choreography and design – all a little too much in all honesty, but then balanced triple bills have not exactly been in fashion here of late. It would, however, be churlish to complain when three masterpieces by three masters are presented, real choreographers, great choreographers whose output is under-represented by the current company leadership: Mikhail Fokine, whose ballets for the Ballets Russes were for long the bedrock of the repertoire; Frederick Ashton, the UK’s greatest dance-creator, whose ballets defined The Royal Ballet for many decades; and George Balanchine, the Russian-born colossus who forged a new American style.
Fokine’s The Firebird clings onto its place in the company’s repertoire while other, equally important works seem to have been dumped – Les Sylphides has been largely ignored for so long that one doubts there is anyone in the company would could teach it, while it is rumoured Petrushka, another magnificent Fokine/Stravinsky collaboration (this time to designs by Alexandre Benois), has fallen foul of the politically correct censors and will never be seen again on the Covent Garden stage. Thanks, then, for the survival of The Firebird, the ballet which in 1910 launched both Stravinsky and the whole Diaghilev balletic enterprise; it is serendipitous that it is revived now, with a major exhibition of works by its designer, Natalia Goncharova, about to open at Tate Modern. The role of the firebird herself has an unquestioned pedigree at The Royal Ballet, from its creator Tamara Karsavina who passed on the title role’s secrets to Margot Fonteyn, then through Monica Mason who has now coached today’s interpreters – three degrees of separation for a ballet that is now well over one hundred years old.
This revival is magnificent, underpinned by the sensitive conducting of Emmanuel Plasson and the rich playing of the Covent Garden orchestra, revelling in Stravinsky’s technicolour sound world. Tempos were brisk (as, indeed, they were throughout the evening), adding to the dramatic impetus. The entire company performed with vigour and engagement, each playing his or her role in making this ballet a sumptuous spectacle. The four named roles, danced over the decades by most of the world’s greatest, were taken with distinction – Christina Arestis is a pure, maidenly yet ever-aristocratic Tsarevna, all rounded shapes and luscious back-bends, while Gary Avis was a playful yet dangerous Kostcheï, the evil spirit trounced by the Firebird. A warm welcome back to the Covent Garden stage after a long period of injury for Edward Watson, bringing his trademark dramatic intelligence to the Tsarevich Ivan, his portrayal full of nuance and detail, his assumption of autocratic power in the final tableau commanding.
At this revival’s heart, the Firebird, in a notable role debut, was Yasmine Naghdi. There can have been few interpreters who have made for a more ferocious, wild creature; Naghdi has absorbed the wisdom of the decades passed on to her, bringing out many details which lesser artists have tended to smudge or omit – from the double flutter of her arms in her initial diagonals to the pulsations running through her as Ivan taunts Kostcheï with the egg which contains the spirit’s soul, it was all in place. She is a strong dancer with genuine stamina, fully able to deliver the exhausting first scene without any loss of energy or focus, while also displaying fine musicality which made her choreography sing. Hers is a notable assumption of a legendary role.
The pure distillation of Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country could only have occurred at the hands of a true master - Ashton’s extraordinary treatment of the narrative led him to create a near-perfect one-act story ballet in which the twists and turns of the plot are made completely clear, the emotions vivid and always comprehensible. This company has always performed this work well, but everything rests on the combination of the two ‘leads’, Natalia Petrovna, the bored châtelaine of the house, and Beliaev, the young man engaged as her son’s tutor for whom she develops an infatuation. Created by the great dance-actress Lynn Seymour and the supremely elegant Anthony Dowell, these roles present considerable interpretative challenges.
Famous ballerinas, drawn to Natalia Petrovna’s undoubted glamour, have not necessarily been right for its complexities, and there were doubts about Marianela Nuñez’s casting, doubts which dissipated from the off, such was the finesse of her acting, the extravagance of her epaulement and use of the torso and the mastery of her filigree footwork. As if liberated by not having to execute virtuoso steps, Nuñez was a nuanced yet supremely legible Natalia, every emotion, hesitation, flight of fancy instantly comprehensible to the viewer. Her superlative technique was placed fully at the service of Ashton’s artistry, every inflection given due weight and proportion.
Matthew Ball was a late replacement as Beliaev, the object of her obsession, not that one could tell – his is something of a jack-the-lad character, brimming with confidence, exulting in his own attractiveness to others, then somewhat taken aback to discover reciprocal feelings for Natalia’s expression of love. They make for a superb dancing couple, well-matched in physical proportions, he strong in partnering, full of youthful vigour in his solo work. Nuñez exulted in the pair work with Ball, throwing her head back against him, pressing herself to him; he cleverly delineated his character’s progression from flattering dalliance to something deeper. His final return to the house (having agreed to leave for the good of the family) and his simple gesture of kneeling behind an unsuspecting Natalia and kissing the ends of the ribbons on her tea gown was made with great physical economy yet full of meaning and emotion.
Impressive dancing from Francesca Hayward as Vera, Natalia’s ward, herself smitten by the new arrival. Hayward phrased her dancing beautifully in her opening solo, full of Ashtonian twists and changes of direction, pin-sharp with her footwork while also bringing a sense of innocent sexual yearning, a young girl’s first love portrayed in all its raw, incomprehensible nature. She was matched by James Hay as Kolia, the son, who captured the unstoppable energy of a young boy, the playfulness, the changes in mood. Above all, he demonstrated mastery of the role’s fiendish choreography while never losing his trademark sense of proportion and natural elegance of movement. Detail and a joie de vivre from Romany Pajdak as the maid Katia and notable character work from the ever-impressive Gary Avis as Rakitin, Natalia’s admirer – what Avis is able to convey by a single gesture is extraordinary and makes him the latest in the line of distinguished character dancers here.
As if the riches of Fokine and Ashton were not enough, the neo-classical brilliance of Balanchine’s Symphony in C to close. This season’s revival (it was presented as part of another triple bill earlier in the year) is the strongest since this dazzling plotless work was acquired in 1991, from the sparkling cohesion of the corps de ballet, through the numerous demi-soloists to the leading quartet of couples. Fumi Kaneko has shown her classical pedigree in previous works (most recently as an immaculate Queen if the Dryads in Don Quixote) but it was still a tall-order for her to bring forward by a day her role-debut as the lead ballerina in the First Movement – not only that, but that she was to replace an injured Natalia Osipova, can only have added to the pressure. If there were nerves, they were not on show, and she and Vadim Muntagirov – himself in a state of grace – sailed through the exultant choreography. Sarah Lamb brought her silvery, lunar presence to the dream-like Slow Movement, swooning into the arms of an impossibly elegant Nicol Edmonds, while Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell leapt and turned with insouciant verve in the joyous Third. Even if the Fourth Movement lead couple always feel a little short-changed by the relatively little they have to dance, Francesca Hayward and James Hay, morphed from the girl and boy of A Month in the Country to ballerina and premier danseur in Symphony in C, dazzled.
As Bizet’s final chords gave way to rapturous applause, the company could be satisfied that it had delivered a vintage evening, one which not only paid tribute to its magnificent heritage but which also showcased its impressive talent.