Following Sergei Polunin's abrupt departure from the Royal Ballet, last Monday's opening night of The Dream saw Steven McRae assume the lead role of Oberon. Choreographed by Frederick Ashton to music by Mendelssohn, the piece is a balletic rendering of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this is a fine, detailed revival. The fairies are perfectly cast, with Akane Takada's Peaseblossom all flit and snap, Romany Pajdak's Mustardseed the dreamy one, and Emma Maguire a pertly head-girlish Cobweb.

As Oberon, McRae emphasises the character's darker notes, materialising behind trees as a glinting, watchful presence and taking a perverse pleasure in the disorder he creates. He dispatches the technical challenges of the scherzo with lethal efficiency, his arabesques sharp as wasp stings, but emotionally his touch is less sure. Distrustful of Alina Cojocaru's capricious Titania, his Oberon evinces a homoerotic complicity with Valentino Zucchetti's sly, suggestive Puck. While arguably a valid reading, this undermines the final pas de deux, leaving us uncertain whether he has earned or indeed desires Cojocaru's exquisite, melting surrender.

No such ambivalence in the second part of this double bill. Song of the Earth, Kenneth MacMillan's magisterial interpretation of Mahler's song cycle, created at the end of the composer's life, is a plangent meditation on mortality and life's renewal. Carlos Acosta has been refining his portrayal of the Messenger of Death for more than a decade now, and the result is baleful, sadly amused and utterly implacable.

As the mortal couple, Rupert Pennefather and Tamara Rojo provide a poignant contrast – he fatalistic, she fraught and resistant – and their journey is inscribed in choreography of the sparest, most austere beauty. Ever conscious of life's transient nature, MacMillan elaborated an entire choreographic aesthetic for the purposes of this ballet, and in consequence Song of the Earth stands alone, hermetic and shimmering, an icon of 20th-century modernism.

The principals and the 16-strong ensemble rise to its challenges with measured precision, both technical and emotional. Acosta moves between quiet gravitas and mocking imitation of the activities of mortals unable to bear too much reality. Pennefather is lost to him almost from the start and this makes Rojo's evasions – at one moment she desperately clasps her lover's legs as if to physically arrest the passing of time – all the more piercing. Rojo's performance is utterly pared back, but vast in its reach and resonance and, in its ultimate acceptance of the dying of the light, sublime.

The Rodin Project is the brainchild of Russell Maliphant. For some years now he has been investigating the human body as an instrument of the unexpected, so it's perhaps inevitable that he should have been attracted by the work of the fin de siècle French sculptor, with its astounding interplays of mass and weightlessness. The result, lit by Michael Hulls, sees the six performers inventively and dynamically deployed, but isn't yet a coherent, theatrical whole. As a work in evolution, however, it promises fascinating things and represents a brave leap forward on Maliphant's part.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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