Planned for a live audience then switched to a streamed show, the Royal Ballet’s latest gala is pretty much an all-killer no-filler programme with a company of dancers who, if anything, seem to have benefited from their hiatus away from the stage.
Valentino Zucchetti gets the honour of opening the show with a world premiere, Scherzo. Zucchetti has been choreographing for some time without making huge waves, but this confident piece of neoclassicism shows he knows what he’s doing. It’s set to Rachmaninov, as, coincidentally, is the evening’s other new-ish piece, Cathy Marston’s In Our Wishes. Extracted from her ballet Three Sisters, this pas de deux was debuted at the Royal’s first post-lockdown performance last month. I found it more compelling this time round, perhaps thanks to the dancers (Romany Pajdak and Calvin Richardson), perhaps because the camera’s lens brought us closer to Pajdak’s haunted expressions. In a short duet they find gravitas, stoicism, desperation and great love between two people who just can’t melt the barrier between them.
Elsewhere, we get to explore the company’s history, with three Frederick Ashton works, including Dance of the Blessed Spirits, originally made for the opera Orpheus in 1953. William Bracewell dances the solo as if it’s a stream of consciousness. Full of feeling but never OTT, his dancing has an honesty about it that’s very moreish. Ashton’s divine Monotones II from 1965 is a trio that depends on absolute control and synchrony, plus Melissa Hamilton’s ability to do vertical splits – toe pointed to ceiling, head clasped to knee – while Reece Clarke and Nicol Edmonds rotate her on pointe. It’s extremely exposed, and skilfully pulled off. Staying in the 60s, Yasmine Naghdi and Edmonds bring seriousness and a scrupulous precision to the stark beauty of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, the combination of choreography, Shostakovich’s music and glowing sunset backdrop quite ravishing.
Delving into the classical rep, there’s an acknowledgment of the year’s lost opportunities: Francesca Hayward missed her Swan Lake debut in April but a glimpse of her Odette here, with partner Cesar Corrales, whets the appetite. The expression in her hands is bewitching enough, and the sense of a person trapped, suspended, in non-human form, is very present. Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov are as impressive as you’d expect in a showpiece from Le Corsaire – Muntagirov finally seems to be growing in star presence to match his technique. But classics don’t have to be predictable and you can count on Natalia Osipova to carve out her own take. Fokine’s Dying Swan is often danced as a beautiful whimper, but Osipova’s doomed swan is pulled across the stage by a force beyond her and, as her cygnine body quivers and judders to its end before a final, dramatic gasp, it’s not always pretty.
These long gala-style shows give the chance to appreciate the range of artistry in the company, and its many cracking dancers – take Marcelino Sambé in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, a man with so much ballon it’s like all 10 lords a-leaping all at once. The show closes with Christopher Wheeldon’s one-act ballet Within the Golden Hour. Highlights are Téo Debreuil and David Donnelly’s telepathic unison, and the quiet ecstasy of Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke’s pas de deux, but much like this entire evening, the whole thing is sheer class.
The Royal Ballet Live: Within the Golden Hour is online until 13 December.