The Royal Ballet’s Les Patineurs is January as you would wish it. No slush, no new-year sales, no streaming chest colds. Winter, as imagined by Frederick Ashton, is an eternal ice rink lit by Chinese lanterns hung from icing-sugar branches. Ashton’s choreography is ingenious. His dancers really do seem to glide, the boards of the stage to freeze. You believe completely that they are on skates, not slippers. The men wear sheepskin jackets, the women bonnets and polka-dot tulle. Sleigh bells ring and fresh flakes fall. The ensemble slip, slide and dance a skating conga. Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell are a Torvill-and-Dean dream in the pas de deux. Kaneko is light, flowing, sweetly flustered as her partner tips her upside-down. Yuhui Choe and Anna Rose O’Sullivan are marvels of precision and balance. Choe’s thousand-and-one spins are done with consummate control.
Marcelino Sambé, powerfully charismatic in The Nutcracker, is here the snowiest of show-off skaters. He is not tall but achieves extraordinary height in his springboard leaps and bounds. He dances with a spirit of mischief, the boy who’ll always throw the first snowball. His final series of pirouettes are a feat of physics. On a bleak midwinter night, Les Patineurs is a pleasure.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams is a gloomier affair. The tale is a loose adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters danced by Marianela Nunez as Masha, Itziar Mendizabal as Olga and Yasmine Naghdi as impetuous Irina. After the prettiness of Les Patineurs, Winter Dreams plays out drably against a backdrop of billiard baize with the sisters in shades of sackcloth and dish mop. The storytelling, to a score by Tchaikovsky, is subtle, unhurried, intelligent, but the choreography so pushes and shoves the sisters that they become sad and solemn dolls. They are passed back and forth by their partners, manipulated and constrained. The performance opens with the maid (Hannah Grennell) abused and cast aside by a group of soldiers and there is a sense all through of the female dancers surrounded and crowded by men.
Nunez and Naghdi are fine foils for one another. Nunez is modest, yielding, womanly; Nagdhi flirtatious, capricious, unsure. She flinches when she is kissed and slaps her suitor in return. Thiago Soares as Lt Colonel Vershinin swaggers, then softens, then stiffens his resolve. It is a nuanced and convincing performance. The ‘Farewell’ pas de deux between Nunez and Soares is danced with a sense of tender tragedy. There are no hysterics, no weeping, no wailing. Their love is not a tempest but a sudden cloudburst of passion, submission and loss. When Vershinin leaves and Masha collapses, Nunez sinks to the floor like a body without bones.
Welcome light relief, then, in The Concert, Jerome Robbins’s jeu d’esprit to music by Chopin. Against a front cloth by Saul Steinberg, a company of concert-goers act a gorgeous farce. Lauren Cuthbertson is lovely as the dreamy fangirl so attached to the maestro’s grand piano that she remains sitting suspended, toes en pointe, when a member of the audience steals her chair. In her leotard and straw hat she gives a routine that is part Jane Fonda and part Kate Bush at her ‘Wuthering Heights’ worst. Only a brilliant dancer could make a klutz so irresistible. Laura Morera and Nehemiah Kish are wittily matched as a virago and her hen-pecked dancing partner. The ‘Mistake Waltz’ is a riotous send-up of the corps de ballet, each girl hopelessly out of time, sync and sympathy. The Concert ends with the corps and principals transformed into butterflies and pursued by a piano-playing lepidopterist with a very large net. Never have I laughed so much at the Opera House.
More metamorphosis at Sadler’s Wells, where Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake returns. Yes, the chaps in feathered chaps are back. Liam Mower is the disenchanted Prince and Matthew Ball, lent by the Royal Ballet, is the Swan. It is an uncanny transformation. He is sinuous and aggressive, his neck long and flexing in a performance of swaggering verve and avian menace. He is malevolence in leather trousers as he enslaves the women of the court and torments the Prince. You can see Ball relishing playing bad. The all-male corps de ballet still surprise and the dance of the cygnets is charming and just camp enough. The trouble, though, with inviting a classical dancer to join a contemporary company is that Ball’s technical brilliance begins to make the others look a little like ugly ducklings.