Two ballets about separation dominate the Royal's latest mixed bill – Kim Brandstrup's Invitus Invitam and MacMillan's Winter Dreams. Each of them has a pair of tragic lovers at its centre, each attempts to compress their story within a single act.

In every other way the two are poles apart. Brandstrup's new work makes a poetic virtue of its own compression. Its lovers are the emperor Titus and his mistress Berenice, about whose separation nothing is known beyond a simple report by the historian Suetonius that "against his will and against her will they parted".

Inspired by the agonised resonance of those few words, Brandstrup constructs his ballet out of three short duets. Set to Thomas Adès's Three Studies from Couperin, these are passionate, fluent exchanges between Titus (Edward Watson) and Berenice (Leanne Benjamin) in which every small inflection as well as every turbulent lift comes saturated with challenge, tenderness, despair. Particularly eloquent is the transition from the flaring, conflicted lines of the first two duets, where the couple are still in partial denial, to the heartbreak of the third. Here, the spare formality of Adès's music expands to romantic fullness and the choreography mimics it with a melting folding anguish.

What the ballet deliberately avoids is any sense of why Tito and Berenice have to part. Instead it punctuates the duets with interludes of "real stage time" during which we watch scenery (bare brick walls) being shunted onto the stage. These gaps act as question marks, invitations for us to imagine the backstory ourselves. Yet while they're one way of solving the problem of narration, especially in a one-act ballet, they introduce an element of awkwardness.

Winter Dreams is awkward in many other ways. In this version of Three Sisters, MacMillan puts all of Chekov's main characters on stage, then ambitiously attempts to contain their different stories within a succession of short danced vignettes. Given the right ensemble, these vignettes can gel into an atmospheric evocation of the play. But with Carlos Acosta badly miscast as Vershinin, even the delicately drawn suffering of Marianela Núñez's Masha doesn't begin to make it hang together.

The fun of the evening comes in the two works that open and close it. Lauren Cuthbertson delivers a pitch perfect fusion of period glamour and intelligent style in Ashton's La Valse. Sergei Polunin, in a miracle of classical precision, virtuosity, and romantic uplift, upstages even Tamara Rojo in Balanchine's Theme and Variations.

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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