Diaghilev programme, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Twentieth-century ballet starts with Serge Diaghilev. His Ballets Russes transformed the art, aiming for a new harmony of music, dance and design.

Twentieth-century ballet starts with Serge Diaghilev. His Ballets Russes transformed the art, aiming for a new harmony of music, dance and design. When he died 75 years ago, he left a repertoire and an inspiration. The Royal Ballet was one of the new companies founded in his wake. This programme is a superb tribute.

In remembering Diaghilev, the company doesn't stick to the Ballets Russes. Ravel's score for Daphnis and Chloe, warmly conducted here by Barry Wordsworth, was a Diaghilev commission. Frederick Ashton's version is a glowing response to Ravel and to Greece., and looks even better for the restoration of John Craxton's original designs. Ashton's ballet is full of celebrations, simple patterns full of rich dance texture. The corps wind through chain dances, kneel, stop as friezes for the principals. The duets have a flowing sensuality. Daphnis guides Lykanion into an arabesque, sliding a hand between her thighs; tremors run through her body as he lifts her. Daphnis swings Chloe round to Ravel's shimmering climax, coming to rest in a radiant arabesque.

Jaimie Tapper is a lyrical Chloe. Ashton's choreography is gracefully clear, details delicately marked. She's a modest stage presence, shy of distinctive musical phrasing, and it's the same with Federico Bonelli's securely danced Daphnis. There's more personality from Marianela Nuñez's lush Lykanion, and from the sparkling corps de ballet.

In revival, Le Spectre de la rose and L'Après-midi d'un faune are up against legendary performances - both were made for Nijinsky. This time, Le Spectre comes out better. Carlos Acosta takes Nijinsky's role, the spirit of the rose a girl carries at her first ball. Fokine's choreography is full of rounded arms, tendril fingers, celebrated leaps. Acosta is expansive and fluid, his jumps high and sure. Laura Morera, as the girl, floats through their waltz with dreamy face and bright insteps.

L'Après-midi caused a scandal in 1912. The curtain goes up to Debussy's dreamy flute, on Bakst's ravishing set. The faun spies on nymphs, and the ballet ends with stylised masturbation. Viacheslav Samodurov is stolidly unsensuous: there's an orgasm in the choreography, but you wouldn't notice. He also misses the profile poses of Nijinsky's strange, angular choreography. Any one of the nymphs could show him how to do it.

Les Noces is primitive and modernist in one breath. The village wedding is powerfully stylised, with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Nijinska. The corps of peasants stamp and churn, rhythms building to explosive force. Guests pile into groups: a pyramid of tilted faces, a fan of squared arms. Soloists burst out, fists clenched, feet kicking through springy jumps. The Royal corps gains in power with each scene; by the end, it is unstoppable and magnificent.

To 25 May (020-7304 4000)

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