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Dance review: Carlos Acosta's Classical Selection - Sweeties with bitter centres

An assortment of ballet bonbons shows Acosta at his most delectable, and occasionally at his doomiest

Inspirational ballet star, Cuban cultural ambassador and man of letters (a debut novel, Pig's Foot, will soon follow his best-selling autobiography), Carlos Acosta has grabbed his destiny and moulded it to his will. Incredibly, though, he has not yet devised a way of halting the march of time and turned 40 in June.

"What?" we all cry. "But those amazing powering jumps, those corkscrewing flips!" And it's true, he still dances like that. He was never a birdman, soaring on currents of air; instead he has a quality of mass, steamrollering through space, an implacable wind-warrior. In the fireworks of the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux, his airborne moves have an effortless perfection of line and precision that raise roars of delight.

This happened on the first night of Classical Selection, Acosta's latest annual showcase, in which he is joined by nine Royal Ballet colleagues. He wanted, he says, not the usual glitzy suspects, specially flown in, but "people who dance", people with whom the audience can really connect. And we do. Marianela Nuñez, everybody's favourite ballerina, matches Acosta's virtuosity step for step as Diana, her light splayed jetés hovering high in the air, her outlines creating a luminous presence, maybe what we call soul. Leanne Benjamin, now retired from the Royal Ballet and a Kenneth MacMillan specialist, brings her vivid drama and tiny, delicate body to extracts from Manon (dancing opposite tall Nehemiah Kish), Mayerling and Requiem. Melissa Hamilton is beautifully lissom in pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's Tryst (with Eric Underwood) and MacMillan's Gloria.

With Classical Selection, Acosta celebrates his birthday by showing who he is: not a muscle machine, but an artist with many facets. To this end, rather than offering razzle dazzle party pieces, he decided on a selection – sometimes challenging, often dramatically dark – from the 20th-century repertoire.

The intention is admirable, but in practice leads to a sameness of form and tone, one mournful pas de deux following another. And while extracts, lifted from their contexts, often lose their emotional resonance, it's still obvious that death and despair recur too often. To greet audiences with, as first item, the Farewell pas de deux from MacMillan's Winter Dreams is harrowing enough, especially with the superb intensity of Nuñez and Acosta struggling to accept the fate that tears them apart. But to follow it with The Dying Swan is a real downer, even if Hamilton stutters and expires with a flickering poetry not so far from that in the surviving footage of Anna Pavlova.

There is jollity when Riccardo Cervera dances the jazzy pas de deux (with Meaghan Grace Hinkis) from Balanchine's Rubies and Ashton's Rhapsody (with Yuhui Choe). But otherwise it's back to the gloom.

In extracts from Mayerling, Rudolf shoots Marie Vetsera and then himself, Benjamin and Acosta reprising their roles for Benjamin's final appearance in June with the Royal Ballet. Cervera, as Rudolf's driver Bratfisch, dances a solo, then discovers the bloody mayhem. If Mayerling is your idea of ballet-drama heaven, then in heaven you will be.

Miguel Altunaga's Memoria is a powerful closing solo for Acosta. Standing in a single spotlight, he plays with the syncopated rhythms of his gestural language, uses pauses and decelerations to build suspense, imprints his contours with compelling force. Wonderful! This is the only choreography performed to a recording in a programme which has live music from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, on-stage piano with Robert Clark, and even beautiful singers –the Pegasus Choir – at its big and generous heart.

Ends Sunday (4 August) (eno.org)

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