Louise Levene

Dazzled by Balanchine

But the cut-price sets are an unworthy setting for the costumes

Dazzled by Balanchine
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Royal Ballet, in rep until 21 April

A trio of dazzling scores, the soft clack of gemstones on hips and collarbones, a glittering parure of solos, duets and ensembles: George Balanchine’s Jewels returns to the Covent Garden repertoire to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The ballet’s three plotless elements celebrate the various facets of classical dance. ‘Emeralds’, set to snatches of Gabriel Fauré, pays lyrical homage to ‘the France of elegance, comfort, dress, perfume’. The American-accented ‘Rubies’ riffs on Stravinsky’s 1929 Capriccio for piano and orchestra, and ‘Diamonds’ joins forces with Tchaikovsky in an exultant hymn of praise to the classical ballerina (a role shared on Saturday by Lauren Cuthbertson and a sublime Marianela Nuñez).

The Royal Ballet, after a tentative stab at ‘Rubies’ back in 1989, only acquired all three gemstones in 2007, and has been known to deliver them with a slightly cut-glass English accent (quite a feat for a company with only three homegrown principals), but last Saturday’s two performances were strongly, at times brilliantly, danced with fine support from Pavel Sorokin and the orchestra.

Balanchine’s command of music — he would sit and read orchestral scores in bed — lends a marvellous sense of inevitability to his steps, which become as much a part of the composition as the strings. ‘Diamonds’ inhabits Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony as if it had been tailored to the choreographer’s own minutage. This musical rigour gives Balanchine ballets a bone structure that will shine through even the most indifferent performance, though such things are rare thanks to the eternal vigilance of the Balanchine Trust (in this case Elyse Borne and Patricia Neary) who police every revival of the works in their care.

That said, it is something of a mystery that the Trust should have signed off on the sets selected for this 2007 production. Jean-Marc Puissant’s spangled draperies and cut-price deco decor are an unworthy setting for Karinska’s original brilliant-cut couture. Perhaps it all looked better at the back-of-a-fag-packet stage.

All three segments present fiendish technical challenges but ‘Emeralds’ is the real killer. Deceptively soft and elegant with its Sylphides-like groupings, the ebb and flow of dancers has an elegiac undercurrent of melancholy to match its score. Its 35 minutes are a masterclass in épaulement, the all-important interplay between hands, arms, head and shoulders, which was displayed to perfection by Laura Morera in Saturday’s evening performance. The Spanish star’s wafting arms and swooning torso are the embodiment of the haunting ‘Sicilienne’ from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. She was well-matched by the princely Ryoichi Hirano.

James Hay also captured the mood perfectly in the feather-footed pas de trois. The fleet and musical Yasmine Naghdi, nicely warmed up after her debut season in Sleeping Beauty, gave a fine account of the leading ballerina at the matinee.

‘Rubies’, with its saucy wit and bravura spins and balances, is always the crowd pleaser (Lincoln Kirstein called it an ‘applause-machine’). Akane Takada smoothly combined her thoroughbred technique with the showgirl high kicks and slutty pelvic thrusts — like a duchess talking dirty.

Tierney Heap relished her role as lead soloist, legs swinging furiously through each brash battement, eyeballing the stalls as if it had collectively spilled her pint.

The same role was danced that evening by a steely Melissa Hamilton who was warmly received after a 19-month leave of absence with Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett, but the ears and the tail went to switchblade-limbed Sarah Lamb and the phenomenal Steven McRae.

With his parallel schooling in jazz and tap the Australian star doesn’t miss a trick, bringing out the comic nuances in every wisecracking step, making easy work of the stylistic and musical contradictions: soft-shoe one minute, tango the next before exiting in a tornado of accelerating chaînés.

McRae will try his hand at ‘Diamonds’ later this month but even he will have to find another gear if he is to match Vadim Muntagirov, who made his own debut on Saturday afternoon. Muntagirov’s kitten-soft feet slot magnetically into fifth position after every swizzling jump, but he also finds emotional weight in each step: each supporting hold is a caress, each lift a celebration. Solos and duets are coloured by luminous after-traces of every hero he has ever played, all but transforming Balanchine’s notionally abstract masterpiece into the third act of a whole new ballet.