Ashton at the Royal Ballet review – miraculous moves and romantic rapture

Royal Opera House, London
The company’s founder choreographer Frederick Ashton is celebrated in a sensational triple bill that captures his spirit and style

Shortly before his death in 1988, Frederick Ashton grew fretful about the future of his ballets. He worried that he was falling out of fashion, that a new generation of dancers were unable to understand his style. “They’re afraid of letting go,” he once complained to me, “they’re afraid of looking camp”. Certainly there’s a romantic register to Ashton’s work – a reaching for the sublime, the lyrical, the frankly sentimental – that can easily appear dated. The distinctive qualities of his choreography – its quick, bright footwork, its exuberant freedom in the upper body and arms – evolved from a school of classicism that was most vital during the first half of the 20th century.

Yet as the Royal Ballet ends its season with an all-Ashton triple bill, I think the choreographer might see a lot to be pleased, or curious, about. His ballets are, largely, better coached than a couple of decades ago; and some of the new repertory that the company performs may, paradoxically, have made its dancers more open to Ashton’s style. Choreographers such as Wayne McGregor and Crystal Pite embody a radically different aesthetic, yet the bold and detailed physicality of their works has had a liberating impact on the dancers’ outlook that may conceivably work to Ashton’s advantage.

Scintillating … Akane Takada (Titania) and Steven McRae (Oberon) in The Dream.
Scintillating … Akane Takada (Titania) and Steven McRae (Oberon) in The Dream. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It’s significant that the first two sets of principals in this season’s The Dream are able to produce entirely convincing yet contrasting interpretations. Steven McRae and Akane Takada portray Oberon and Titania as dangerously otherworldly creatures. Their skimmingly fast footwork and effortless jumps scintillate with light and air, yet there’s a darkness to their characters. McRae’s Oberon is moved by dangerous, prideful caprices while tiny, silken Takada matches his demons with her own amoral, eldritch hauteur.

As fairy royalty the couple stand magisterially aloof from the emotional muddle of the human characters (with Claire Calvert a rosily comic Hermia and Bennet Gartside mining a vein of poignant poetry as Bottom). But as charismatic McRae and Takade are, it is Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé who have the most fun with Ashton’s choreography and who push the movement to its full expressive range.

Sambé is not yet in command of McRae’s preternaturally controlled technique, but he’s a beautiful dancer and a musically vivid mime. As for Hayward, I don’t believe I’ve seen a better Titania since Antoinette Sibley. Technically, she performs miracles of lightness and velocity, every phrase shaped by an interior music; but her dancing is also a transparent register of emotion. She’s cross with Oberon, conspiratorial with her fairies, gigglingly infatuated with Bottom and her reconciliation duet with Oberon becomes spellbinding as all of Titania’s antagonism towards her husband melts into a sensuous, intoxicated languor.

Yuhui Choe, Vadim Muntagirov, Marianela Nu–nez and Yasmine Naghdi in Symphonic Variations.
Meditation on love and transcendence … Yuhui Choe, Vadim Muntagirov, Marianela Nuñez and Yasmine Naghdi in Symphonic Variations. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In Symphonic Variations, Ashton distilled his natural effervescence into an abstract meditation on love and transcendence: the inventiveness of his choreography held in tension by a core of stillness and finely proportioned restraint. It’s a fiercely difficult ballet to sustain, yet it’s honoured this season by some excellent performances: Marianela Nuñez reaches for both gravity and radiance, with Vadim Muntagirov her quietly impressive partner. In the second cast, the fast-maturing Reece Clarke makes a fine debut (gamely handling a temporary costume malfunction) and Lauren Cuthbertson brings a movingly intelligent refinement to her choreography, matched in spirit and style by her two flanking ballerinas.

If Ashton had his way, Marguerite and Armand would have died along with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, the dancers on whom it was originally – and legendarily – created. Choreographically, this wouldn’t have been such a loss: in this 1963 ballet, Ashton trod a perilous line between the torrid and the trite. But great dancers can make dramatic gold out of schmaltz. Alessandra Ferri – nearly 10 years older than Fonteyn when the latter first danced Marguerite – brings a combination of period elegance, tissue-paper fragility and inner torment to the ageing courtesan and in doing so elicits a performance of burnished, turbulent ardour from Federico Bonelli.

A perilous line between the torrid and the trite … Zenaida Yanowsky (as Marguerite) and Roberto Bolle (as Armand).
A perilous line between the torrid and the trite … Zenaida Yanowsky (as Marguerite) and Roberto Bolle (as Armand). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Equally fine, but in a very different register is Zenaida Yanowsky, who has opted to dance Marguerite as her farewell role before retiring from the Royal, and she holds nothing back. The exceptional clarity of her acting is eloquently displayed in Marguerite’s first encounter with Armand. With her poised upper body and worldly smile she’s every inch the glamorous hostess; yet in the sighing stretch of her legs and the dark pooling of her eyes she’s already betraying the vulnerability of a woman lost to love.

As the ballet ratchets up to its tragic climax Roberto Bolle’s Armand doesn’t keep emotional pace. But he’s a very strong partner, and as Yanowsky hurtles into the heart of Marguerite’s joy and grief, he allows this wonderful artist to exit her career on an incandescent high.

• At the Royal Opera House, London, in rep to 10 June. Box office: 020-7304 4000. This triple bill will be broadcast live to outdoor screens across the UK on 7 June at 7.30pm.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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