Ballet lovers driven square-eyed by a drip feed of livestreaming and archive footage have been pining for the patter of tiny satin feet. Last month the UK’s big ballet companies began to emerge from hibernation, playing small-scale work to thin, socially distanced houses. Some, such as Birmingham Royal and English National ballets, took the opportunity to broaden their audience’s conservative tastes with otherwise tricky-to-shift programmes of new work. Others, like the Royal and Northern ballets, offered choreographic comfort food.
After testing the waters with last month’s Back on Stage gala, danced before an audience of 400 dance students and health workers, the Royal Ballet began its autumn season with two programmes selected from its vast back catalogue. Sadly, thanks to the new lockdown, its first night was also its last.
The one-off mixed bill was a generous blend of the two planned programmes, devised to give maximum value for ticket holders and maximum stage time for stars and soloists. Act I was a crowded charm bracelet of solos, duets and trios and Act II a rousing rerun of the new jumbo staging of Kenneth MacMillan’s dance hall dance-off Elite Syncopations.
Bag searches, track and trace and a terror threat recently upped to ‘severe’ could easily have had us queueing all the way to the Aldwych, but Covent Garden’s front-of-house team rose to the challenge with unsuspected grace and efficiency and everyone was greeted and seated by 7 p.m.
Sadler’s Wells had managed to keep its bars open for BRB’s London comeback the previous week but the Opera House stayed dry. It was hard for a masked audience of 950 with no gin inside it to generate the kissy-kissy buzz usually found in Covent Garden’s bars and foyers but the atmosphere in the auditorium was affectionate and excited as director Kevin O’Hare made his curtain speech of welcome. The ten items of the first half flowed seamlessly, with simple slides announcing who was dancing what.
The evening began with two palate-cleansers from Frederick Ashton. The Rhapsody pas de deux was danced by the fleet and silky Akane Takada deftly fielded by Alexander Campbell. It was followed by Monotones II, a 1965 leotard work as serene and simple-seeming as its Satie score (Trois Gymnopédies). Teo Dubreuil and David Donnelly inhabited their roles with other-worldly elegance but Gina Storm-Jensen was miscast as the bendy-toy ballerina at the trio’s heart.
Francesca Hayward had been denied her Swan Lake debut back in March but was finally given a chance to show us what we had missed in a delicately sketched Act II pas de deux partnered by an attentive if slightly pallid William Bracewell.
The dear old Corsaire pas de deux was introduced to Covent Garden in 1962 by Rudolf Nureyev but never really became a mainstay of the repertoire. The firecracker male variations are haunted by beautiful memories of Bujones, Ruzimatov, Acosta and Nureyev himself (preserved on film) that never quite wipe clean. Matthew Ball has the looks, the partnering skills and the swagger required, but although his fanbase squealed with pleasure his solos didn’t really take flight. Happily, Mayara Magri’s Medora saved the day. Her airy jump, tight chaînés and responsive ear made the steps seem geared to the orchestral mechanism.
The Royal’s dance-drama tradition and rich repertoire means that it needn’t restrict itself to the usual gala clichés. With a tilt of the head and a roll of the shoulder Laura Morera immersed her audience in the steamy, seamy bedroom pas de deux from MacMillan’s Manon, leading Federico Bonelli a little further down the primrose path.
Elite Syncopations makes for a life-enhancing finale but the loudest cheers were for the first-act closer: George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux. Marianela Nunez bounded gleefully through her variation and Vadim Muntagirov hung in the air in blithe, tip-tilted jumps landed on eerily silent feet.
Small-screen ballet sanitises the soundscape and while it’s quite nice to be rid of the hammering pointe shoes and lumpy landings — not to mention the hacking cough from the row behind — you lose a lot in the edit: the muffled ‘huff’ of effort; the faint hiss of a spinning foot and the happy sighs of pleasure from an audience grateful to be back in the room.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10