Mothballed since March when it danced a farewell Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet made a triumphant and joyous return to Covent Garden last Friday, performing a string of ancient and modern works before an invited audience of 400. Meanwhile, around the country (and the world) ballet-starved viewers paid £16 to watch a Vimeo livestream.
Jonathan Lo and the 83-strong orchestra, enjoying added elbow room in the stalls, set the tone for an emotional evening with the Sleeping Beauty overture — the ballet that famously reopened the Opera House after the second world war. It was a natural and poignant choice, but director Kevin O’Hare hadn’t succumbed to ancestor worship. Balanchine, Ashton and MacMillan were all present and correct but there were regular reminders of more recent acquisitions.
Every star had a showcase— Medusa for Natalia Osipova, Woolf Works for the soon-to-retire Edward Watson — and the corps and soloists were shown off in extracts from longer pieces. There was a 20-man synchronised trudge from Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, the closing moments from Christopher Wheeldon’s elysian Within the Golden Hour and the evening ended on a high with a supersized restaging of Kenneth MacMillan’s candy-coloured ragtime extravaganza Elite Syncopations.
These numbers proved that it is possible to rehearse a socially distanced ensemble (which bodes well for December’s downsized Nutcracker) but the bulk of Friday’s programme consisted of duets. Luckily for O’Hare and his répétiteurs, several Royal Ballet principals are offstage couples. Others, such as Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, work in tight rehearsal bubbles. The whole process is as safe as masks and testing can make it and yet watch two dancers embrace and you still get that strange, Covid-conscious frisson when flesh meets flesh.
Akane Takada was a soulful and persuasive Odette partnered by Federico Bonelli. Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke were beautifully matched in the only ‘new’ work: an extract from Cathy Marston’s 2014 Three Sisters in which Masha and Vershinin enact a push-me-pull-you dialogue to Rachmaninov’s First Prelude. This was followed by the ‘Diamonds’ pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Jewels, danced with brilliant-cut assurance by Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano.
Three downbeat duets had got things off to a slightly sombre start. Happily, the mood was lifted by MacMillan’s swansong pas de deux for Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 Carousel. Matthew Ball was dream casting for the lovestruck Billy Bigelow and Mayara Magri found surprising nuances within the tussling pairwork.
The vagaries of Covid bubbling gave us two Oberons in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream: William Bracewell for the feather-footed scherzo and Alexander Campbell for the duet between the fairy king and his errant queen. Steps pour from Laura Morera with almost improvisatory freedom. Her feet embroider at speed while arms and upper body luxuriate in Ashton’s voluptuous épaulement.
There was another Ashton masterclass in the cornfield pas de deux from La Fille mal gardée, danced with cheek, charm and five-star technique by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé who earned the loudest cheers of the night. There were more fireworks from Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nunez in the wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote. Muntagirov brought a princely gloss to Basilio’s bravura flash. Nunez, 39 next birthday, danced like a sunbeam with airy jetés, machine-stitch pointework and balances that time forgot.
At home in quarantine, I was obliged to savour it all on screen. Like thousands of fuming pay-per-viewers I spent much of the long evening watching the whizzing wheel of doom while the computer tried to buffer the transmission. The pay-per-view recording no longer suffers from these issues.
The fidgety camerawork was an even greater irritant. Seasoned dance-film directors use their camera like a ballet buff wields opera glasses: scanning for the key moment; zooming in on telling details. But Friday night’s coverage was forever dwarfing the dancers with endless wide shots and often cutting away mid-variation. I’ve seen better iPhone bootlegs.
A tighter edit wouldn’t have hurt. The 60-minute time lag between the start of the three-and-a-half hour show and the beginning of the livestream was an opportunity to minimise any longueurs, but the dance numbers were interlarded with snippets of backstage life and all viewers, real and virtual, had to endure the witless burblings of the evening’s on-stage presenter.
Galas don’t need presenters — a word of welcome and a few surtitles will normally suffice — and Anita Rani, despite a TV CV as long as your arm, is certainly no advertisement for the breed: gushing, uninformed and was she wearing that muumuu for a bet? The countless entr’acte interviews were downright embarrassing. Given her reliance on scripted notes, you would have thought she could have come up with something meatier than ‘Have you missed it?’