Thrilling debuts, starry guests and a tear-stained farewell at Covent Garden this week as the Royal Ballet closed the season with a triple bill of works by Sir Frederick Ashton. The company’s founder choreographer could often be spotted lurking at the back of the house during Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty enjoying ‘a private lesson’. Today’s would-be narrative dancemakers could gain similar benefits from The Dream, which distils Shakespeare’s five acts into 55 minutes of witty, characterful dance.
Steven McRae’s Oberon made short work of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo with icy pirouettes melting into deep penchées and turns chained so tight and fast he should wear asbestos slippers. Marcelino Sambé added a spicy dash of sadism to the fairy king’s revenge, which made the final duet with ‘proud Titania’ all the sweeter. Nuptial pas de deux are two a penny in classical ballet but happy ever after is far harder to capture. John Cranko managed it in Onegin and Ashton achieves it here: a long, erotically-charged dialogue of reconciliation.
Francesca Hayward was a pin-sharp Titania despite her slightly me-and-my-first-pony take on Bottom’s seduction. Laura Morera was raunchier and more wayward and Akane Takada, a last-minute substitution, rode the breeze with each jump and relished the sexy shoulderplay, arms trailing in her wake like mist. David Yudes made an impressive first sketch of Puck with vari-speed pirouettes and leaps that hung in the air with impressive ballon (remember ballon?). The four lovers played out their farce like a lost scene from Pickwick and the corps de ballet, fairy-soft in their well-prepared shoes, floated through the fuzzy geometry of the ensembles.
The evening’s centrepiece was 1946’s Symphonic Variations set to César Franck and designed by Sophie Fedorovitch who conjured a minimalist Elysium with a few swirling isobars on a shimmering lime-green ground. Vadim Muntagirov struck exactly the right note of Olympian serenity: a world where feet make no sound and gravity is optional. The second cast looked under-rehearsed (despite a dazzling debut from Joseph Sissens in his first-ever featured role) but the bone structure of this masterpiece shone out from beneath the wrinkles.
Marguerite and Armand is not a masterpiece but a great performance will convince you otherwise. Ashton’s 1963 précis of La Dame aux Camélias was a vehicle for Fonteyn and Nureyev and fell into abeyance until it was exhumed for Sylvie Guillem in 2000. The current revival boasts three casts and three international guest stars.
The heavily tattooed elephant in the room was, of course, Royal Ballet runaway Sergei Polunin who had been invited to reprise his 2011 triumph as Armand. Kevin O’Hare’s olive branch was magnanimous but Polunin’s mania for bridge-burning caused him to pull out. Happily, a suitably starry replacement was found in the Mariinsky’s Vladimir Shklyarov, who makes perfect sense of all those preening Nureyev arabesques. It’s a less florid reading overall but it builds to a shattering final scene.
Three Marguerites: all good, all quite different. Natalia Osipova, a fine foil for Shklyarov, swooned through the pairwork and packed her interpretation with fresh layers of meaning, a woman cramming a lifetime of emotions into her last weeks on earth. Dark and fragile-seeming, Alessandra Ferri (55 next birthday) is the most Fonteyn-like of the three casts. Her stammering pointework echoes the staccato hammer of Liszt’s piano and her slightest gesture carries weight. When Armand (a dashing Federico Bonelli) first erupts into the salon, the slow, slow fall of her forearms shows us a woman renouncing control of her destiny. Devastating. Zenaida Yanowsky’s air of golden health and vitality are an odd fit with Dumas’s consumptive courtesan and the curtain calls for her swansong were possibly more emotional than the performance, but it was a fine end to a splendid evening.