Rhapsody review – heart-stopping Ashton from Francesca Hayward

Royal Opera House, London
Hayward is astonishing, easy perfection in classic Frederick Ashton. In the Royal Ballet’s second cast, Steven McRae takes command

‘The best of the new’: Royal Ballet’s James Hay and Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody.
‘The best of the new’: Royal Ballet’s James Hay and Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet’s revival of Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody (currently in a double bill with The Two Pigeons) illustrates, unsparingly, the company’s strengths and deficiencies. The opening cast was led by James Hay and Francesca Hayward, both performers who represent the best of the new, while fully embodying old-school Royal Ballet values. Ashtonian dancing is not taught these days, but caught. Hay and Hayward have it running in their veins.

Hayward is astonishing. Tiny, effortlessly musical, with a radiance of line that illuminates every corner of the stage, she dances from within, outwards. This is what classical ballet is all about: those moments when emotion and physical geometry become one. All of Ashton’s choreography searches for this union, for heart-stopping sensuality born of austere precision. He would have loved Hayward.

Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody: ‘Ashton would have loved her.’
Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody: ‘Ashton would have loved her.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Her outpouring of delight is so easy and natural you forget you’re watching ballet steps. Hay reminds you. His role, created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, is calculatedly showy. As the most purely classical of the Royal’s men, Hay can do it all, but he hesitates, beautifully mannered chap that he is, to take absolute possession of the stage. Steven McRae, who leads the second cast opposite Natalia Osipova, has no such qualms. From the first, McRae takes command. We are guests in his court; he is here to show us his speedy turns, his whirling chaînés, and the elegant gravity games he plays with his revoltades.

‘Off-key’: Natalia Osipova with Steven McRae in Rhapsody.
‘Off-key’: Natalia Osipova with Steven McRae in Rhapsody. Photograph: © ROH, 2016 Helen Maybanks

He is also here to display his partner, Osipova, which is where things slide off-key. Osipova doesn’t get Rhapsody. The steps give her no trouble – she’s a Bolshoi-trained ballerina – but she dances the piece without nuance, or the melting upper-body work that characterises Ashton’s choreography. Where Hayward shines from within, Osipova calculatedly emotes. The result, for all McRae’s dash and sprezzatura, is brittle.

Among the ensemble, there’s a noticeable gender division. The men have no trouble with the steps, but there’s no subtlety of phrasing and, noticeably, no épaulement. The result is like listening to poetry read by a sports reporter. Ashton’s spirit is not quite extinguished, living on in the serene musicality of Emma Maguire, the bountiful port de bras of Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and the yielding, soft-backed femininity of Mayara Magri. But these are glimpses, and Hayward is a dazzling exception. Classical dancers are artists, not athletes, and if the Royal values Ashton, its founder choreographer, it needs to be a more assiduous curator of his style.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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