Les Patineurs / Winter Dreams / The Concert review – festive cheer and tears at the Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, London
A fine take on Chekhov’s melancholy Three Sisters brings bite to this seasonal triple bill, before ice skaters and lovers restore the yuletide glow

Who needs festive cheer when you could have a slow, Slavic slide into midwinter depression? I’d trade any number of Nutcrackers for Kenneth MacMillan’s beautifully bleak Winter Dreams, from 1991. Based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, it’s a ballet of impressions rather than narrative, evoking the suffocating melancholy of these women trapped in provincial life and unfulfilling relationships.

The foundations of its heavy sadness are laid by Tchaikovsky’s piano music, augmented by traditional Russian music on mandolins and balalaika. Into its world come sisters Masha (Marianela Nuñez), Olga (Itziar Mendizabal) and Irina (Yasmine Naghdi), stepping so silently in three perfectly tuned arabesques it’s as if they’ve been muted.

Suffocating … Yasmine Naghdi, Itziar Mendizabal and Marianela Nuñez.
Suffocating … Yasmine Naghdi, Itziar Mendizabal and Marianela Nuñez. Photograph: Alice Pennefather/ROH

This is a ballet of huge restraint, and so much more affecting for it. MacMillan has a great repertoire of torrid pas de deux, with much flinging of women in passionate fervour, but here it’s like everyone is holding their breath. He’s a master of writing character into movement and for all their yearnings these women are confined by decorum and expectation.

Masha, married to the ageing Kulygin (Gary Avis) has her head turned by visiting army officer Vershinin (Thiago Soares). Nuñez’s Masha is in torturous battle with herself. As Vershinin pursues her, she pulls back, but his body is sucked into the empty space. She can barely look at him, even when her own body yields, betraying her true desire. There’s so much fine detail: Avis’s stuttering husband is heartbreaking, while Mendizabal’s Olga holds herself so tightly you can almost see her knotted stomach. As brother Andrey, Valentino Zucchetti’s fussy arms paint perfectly the image of a harried stress-pot, while Lara Turk as his wife conveys through very little action the smug/sour self-righteousness of one who thinks they deserve better. Think Trudy from Mad Men transferred to 19th-century Russia.

The climactic farewell between Masha and Vershinin is often performed as a standalone piece, but it’s much more powerful here for the slow-burn build-up, and is gorgeously musical, with deft phrases sometimes chasing the melody, sometimes stretched across the bars. This one makes your heart ache.

Frosty confection … Les Patineurs.
Frosty confection … Les Patineurs. Photograph: Alice Pennefather/ROH

That’s the meat of this alternative winter feast, then there’s the frivolity. Les Patineurs, Frederick Ashton’s skating-inspired ballet is perfectly nice chocolate box nostalgia, a frosty confection of bonnets and fur-trimmed booties. Ashton’s exposing choreography asks for precision – and mostly gets it, especially from big-leaping Marcelino Sambé in the Blue Boy solo, his jumps and beats all deliberately articulated. But glowing Yuhui Choe is the queen of this ballet. She’s technically superb, driving through a torrent of fouettes, but more than that she’s funny, and gets the tongue-in-cheek tone just right.

More comic chops are revealed in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert. Robbins may be a stone cold genius – he made West Side Story, after all – but this one’s a twee, mannered comedy of outmoded sexual politics. But call me Scrooge, because everyone else seems to be laughing. There’s no question it is well performed. Lauren Cuthbertson is a natural comedian as the free-spirited beauty being chased by someone else’s sleazeball husband – Nehemiah Kish, laying it on thick, a real revelation. But the hero of the evening is pianist Robert Clark. After his poignant Tchaikovsky in Winter Dreams, he’s onstage as the grumpy musician in the Concert. Not only can he play a mean Chopin, turns out he can slapstick with the best of them.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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