The first chance to see live ballet on a major stage in seven months comes complete with temperature checks and masks, the orchestra so spaced out they take up the whole of the stalls, and just 400 in the audience, down from more than 2,000. There’s no socialising, no smiles and chat and clinking drinks, and no pretending this is back to normal. But when the overture starts, you sink into your seat in the dark and let your mind off the leash, as what you’ve been missing floods back. There are certain things you just can’t get watching from your laptop, like the power of communal silence.
The gala programme covers classical rep (Swan Lake), British ballet greats (Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan), and contemporary choreographers (Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon). Every member of the Royal Ballet gets a chance to dance, which adds up to more than three hours on stage (with interludes from presenter Anita Rani, mainly of the “How does it feel to be back?!” variety). You’d never guess they’d all been off for months. They still trained every day, of course, but there are moments where you can feel that energy that’s been pent up, waiting to be set free.
The whole company gets on stage together in a specially reworked version of MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations (set mostly to Scott Joplin rags), the cast twice the usual size. Some couples (who live together, or have been regularly tested) are allowed to dance together, others partner at arm’s length. Yasmine Naghdi is nigh-on perfect leading the troupe, and Claire Calvert shows she knows how to command the moment in the Calliope Rag.
But most of the show uses smaller configurations, with excellence across the board but some definite highlights: Akane Takada’s divine Swan Lake Act II pas de deux with Federico Bonelli taken at glacially slow pace – not because she’s wringing emotion out of it, but because she’s a creature of a different plane and that’s how long it takes to float, soundlessly from one step to the next.
Mayari Magri smiles jubilantly as she runs on stage to the fading melody of You’ll Never Walk Alone, in an extract from Kenneth MacMillan’s 1992 choreography for Carousel. Her leap and swirl, body whooshing into the air, is pure freedom. Partner Matthew Ball brings his A-game in the leaping stakes with flashy revoltades, shooting himself up towards the roof. Ball already has star status, but Magri easily matches him.
There is a truly moving trio from Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, with soon-to-retire principal Edward Watson as Mrs Dalloway’s Septimus Smith, a war veteran trapped between the intense memory of a fallen lover and the wan, washed-out reality of current life and marriage. With Max Richter’s music and Lucy Carter’s lighting, it makes for a very complete piece of theatre even in a short extract.
A notable mention for Natalia Osipova’s mesmerisingly tentacular arms in a solo from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Medusa. But the couple who really embody the heart-swelling joy of the occasion and make it momentarily feel as if there five times as many of us under this roof are Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan in a pas de deux from Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. O’Sullivan’s bright presence stands up to the warm megawatts of Sambé’s irresistible charisma. Sambé’s giant leaps come with unbelievable ease; his body soars, and so do our weary spirits.