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Frederick Ashton triple bill — Royal Ballet’s well-chosen menu ends with a flambé

The Royal Ballet dusted off the family silver last weekend for a sublime triple bill of work by Frederick Ashton that reasserts the genius of their founder-choreographer.

Ashton first heard Scènes de Ballet while soaking in his bath to the Third Programme and was obliged to telephone the BBC to identify it. His choreography embodies Stravinsky’s score, with hands, heads and feet slotting smartly into its mercurial time signatures. Danced by a lead couple and a corps of 16, the 24-minute 1948 ballet is plotless but never entirely abstract. The ensembles (inspired by Euclidean geometry) build to a finale that reads like the resolution of a lost narrative: a triple-distilled homage to Petipa.

At Saturday’s matinee, Vadim Muntagirov’s leaps and turns seemed synced to Emmanuel Plasson’s baton, but his moments of sculptural stillness — including a sighworthy attitude — are every bit as impressive. Sarah Lamb, coolly alluring in André Beaurepaire’s chic lemon-sherbet tutu, shimmered exquisitely through solos that offset brilliant-cut footwork with liquescent arms and shoulders. Seven hours later, Yasmine Naghdi made an assured debut, nobly partnered by Reece Clarke.

A Month in the Country, with what Ashton dubbed “a welding job” of Chopin by John Lanchbery, in a Russian country house setting by Julia Trevelyan Oman, was strongly danced at both weekend performances. At the matinee, Marianela Núñez made easy work of Natalia Petrovna’s constant changes of speed and direction, and her emotions vacillated just as readily: languid one minute; frantic the next. Matthew Ball is well cast as her son’s all-too-loveable young tutor.

Marianela Núñez and Matthew Ball danced strongly in ‘A Month in the Country’ © Helen Maybanks

Laura Morera, 44, has finally made her debut as Natalia Petrovna. A fine dance actress — Onegin, Manon, Mayerling, Enigma Variations — her musicality, fast footwork and luscious épaulement make her an ideal Ashton dancer. On Saturday evening she revealed every facet of the bored, selfish beauty whose late-flowering passion threatens to trash the doll’s house she adorns. The melodramatic shorthand required to condense Turgenev’s five-act play into 45 minutes needs careful handling, but Morera gave weight and seriousness to every sigh and swoon. Muntagirov (him again) coached by Anthony Dowell, the original Beliaev, was at once innocent and irresistible.

This varied, well-chosen menu closed with a flambé: 1980’s Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini (with Robert Clark on piano). The 30-minute firework display was created to exploit the throwaway bravura of Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Royal Ballet guest at the time, but the 14-man ballet is more than a star vehicle and has a challenging ballerina role. Francesca Hayward, with her windblown runs on pointe, sways and bends in true Ashtonian style. She was partnered at the matinee by Marcelino Sambé, who shaded his own dazzle with princely insouciance.

Steven McRae first danced Rhapsody in 2011. Eleven years and a rebuilt Achilles tendon later, he still has the neatest feet in the business and can chain turns at warp speed. There was a perceptible sense of strain on Saturday evening, but he stormed doggedly through this flashdance marathon with corkscrewing revoltades that earned squeals of delight.

★★★★★ 

To May 2, roh.org.uk

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