By the end of 2004 every dance lover in the land ought to be better acquainted with the work of George Balanchine, prolific choreographer, modernist, educator, and founder of American ballet. Given time, even Radio 3 presenters might learn to pronounce his name properly (to rhyme with "sheen" not "shine" as I heard one night last week). He was born 100 years ago, died 20 years ago, and his vast body of work - some 440 ballets made in the course of half a century - remains unrivalled in its stylistic range and distinctiveness. The man they called Mr B must also hold some kind of record for the sheer number of his ballets dubbed "masterpiece". The word has attached to so many of them that it ceases to mean very much.
The Royal Ballet was first off the block in this country to mark the centenary, and all three of the works it chose for its Balanchine Triple Bill are undisputed landmarks. There's Prodigal Son, made in 1929 for Diaghilev's Ballet's Russes, Agon, made for New York City Ballet in 1957, and the buoyantly classical Symphony in C as the perfect tutu'd closer. The opener was the thoroughly abstract Agon (the Greek for contest), announcing its audacious modernity in the opening shot of four men with their backs turned. "Ballet is woman," said Balanchine famously, but although the women do get the upper hand in this ballet the men at least have a chance to look tough. Johan Kobborg in particular shoulders his way through the swaggering moves with a meatiness that belies his slight frame.
Classicism is at the core of Balanchine's modernity, which is why Agon's novelties still look fresh half a century on, and audiences still laugh at the jokes. But classical technique is only half the story, and the most impressive performances are those where the dancers deliver their entrechats and frappés with Broadway chutzpah as well as diamond-cut precision. Alas, illness and injury compromised the Royal's first-night line up and individual performances were uneven. Deirdre Chapman and Isabel McMeekan nicely caught the brittle glamour of their duet, but the female corps in general looked far too polite and British. Only Zenaida Yanowsky - fast becoming a veteran of the Ballerina role - was properly bold and steely. In the face of her slicing arabesque and heartless stare, I felt for her partner Federico Bonelli. Left alone on stage with this virago he looked as if he really believed she'd eat him.
Prodigal Son has been in the Royal's repertory since 1973, but it's not been dusted down very often, and now we can see why. The central role requires a huge personality to fill it, and a physique that looks good in the buff. The 1929 premiere had the legendary Serge Lifar; in the 1970s the Royal had Rudolf Nureyev. Now along comes Carlos Acosta, and a revival is possible once more. Add Sylvie Guillem as his nemesis, the Siren, and the box-office is rubbing its hands. So yes, the central duo is terrific. Acosta, with his earnest acting, his fabulous jump, his rampant energy, his natural boyish charm, is perfect as the rabble-rouser who disregards his father's warnings, leaves home to taste the temptations of the flesh, and returns home robbed and sore. Guillem, the curiously dressed harlot who leads him astray, is all cool calculation, amused only so far as she might be amused to watch the buzzing of a fly as she removes its wings. The conviction that Guillem is mistress of her every sinew is never stronger than when she manipulates her long red cloak with erotic suggestiveness, tying it tight round her thigh and wrist with a clear suggestion of bondage. The following pas de deux, a feat of gymnastic contortions, must have been a real shocker in 1929.
A second difficulty in staging Prodigal Son today is the sheer weirdness of the chorus - a band of bald grotesques who make their entrance jammed together in a squat-legged line that waddles from side to side like a human centipede, and who otherwise move in spasmodic jerks as if in an old film. Some of their antics are comic, which also feels odd in this serious parable about family bonds and forgiveness. But the Royal's cast brings just enough conviction to these strange activities to carry it through. Georges Rouault's brushily painted sets and the very early Prokofiev score pile on historic interest.
Symphony in C, danced to the romping classicism of the 17-year-old Bizet, brings the evening to a rattling close, though Wednesday's performance was nearly scuppered by mishaps. Given the general compositional fizz (allegro, adagio, allegro, allegro - that's youth for you), it hardly mattered that one or two balances toppled, and Ivan Putrov found himself doing a fast pirouette when he was supposed to have been catching Alina Cojocaru's. But these minor glitches only underlined Balanchine's fiendish cleverness in fitting all the teeming elements together. Few ballets send an audience home so happy.
Balanchine triple bill: ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 25 FebReuse content