First Night: Royal Ballet Gala, Royal Opera House, London

Gala serves up odd selection of party pieces and candyfloss
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet has settled down to a thorough celebration of its 75th birthday. This gala, which also celebrates the Queen's 80th birthday, follows a new Sleeping Beauty and a special programme of works made for the company. The gala is made up of party pieces, ending with the reworking of an older pièce d'occasion. All in all, it's an odd selection.

The hit of the evening was the duet from Le Corsaire. Carlos Acosta comes bounding on, his jumps high, the landings as soft as velvet. As he hangs in the air, Acosta embellishes one whirling leap with more turns, more kicks, more sparkle. The entire Covent Garden audience gasped, a collective sizzle of astonishment.

Le Corsaire is standard gala fare, an obvious showstopper. Other pieces work less well out of context. Dancers from Birmingham Royal Ballet chose duets from Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons and John Cranko's The Lady and the Fool - which both build on earlier scenes. Sylvie Guillem, characteristically, brought her own number, Russell Maliphant's contemporary-dance solo Two. Guillem stands spotlit in a box of light, her whirling limbs caught in the angles of Michael Hulls's lighting.

La Valse, Frederick Ashton's choreography to Ravel's score, is a hectic, swooping opening. The performance tended to be hectic, too, though Marianela Nuñez danced with marvellous abandon.

Homage to the Queen is a recycled celebration. Ashton's original version, a setpiece with four ballerinas representing the elements, was made to celebrate the Coronation. Only the Air section survived, so the gaps have been filled with new dances, commissioned from three British choreographers. In its new form, it is a candyfloss ballet, a large (40 minutes) but insubstantial dose of sugar.

The new dances by David Bintley, Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon are all formal, classical numbers. Steps are pretty or spectacular, but they don't add up to anything more. Peter Farmer frames the dancing with elaborate, heavy designs, crowns and draperies. Tunics and tutus are thickly patterned. With its polite steps and bows to the royal crest, this is a very retro work.

It is well danced. The Royal Ballet has been on wobbly form lately, with some alarmingly weak dancing in the recent Sleeping Beauty. Here, the many soloists make the most of their steps.

Bintley's Earth section has orientalist poses, Leanne Benjamin carried in horizontal swoops by Federico Bonelli. In Water, Corder sets clipped, speedy steps for Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru, with Laura Morera outstanding in a solo filled with changes of direction.

Christopher Wheeldon's Fire is the most spectacular section. In virtuosity, Stephen McRae gives Acosat a run for his money: spinning, turning, sliding to the floor and bounding onwards again. Sarah Lamb whizzes through fast solos, ending - snap! - on one knee.

Ashton's original Air does establish a mood, but it suffers from miscasting. Protocol may make Darcey Bussell an obvious choice for the top ballerina role but she's just too big for the soaring, acrobatic lifts. Her physique is lovely, but it doesn't fit these steps.

Homage to the Queen performed tonight. Box office 020 7340 4000