First World War cocktail gets the mix of bitter and sweet just right

Royal Ballet Mixed Bill | Royal Opera House, London
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Traditionally, it's the full-evening, story ballets that sell. Mixed programmes are slow box office, which is why the Royal often plays safe with endless Manons and Swan Lakes.

Traditionally, it's the full-evening, story ballets that sell. Mixed programmes are slow box office, which is why the Royal often plays safe with endless Manons and Swan Lakes.

The current offering gets the balance of sugar and bitter just right. It's a treat for music lovers too, with generous dollops of Ravel, Satie, Chausson, Franck and glorious Poulenc. And for once there is a discernible theme linking all the ballets, whether narrative or abstract: the cultural and emotional watershed of the First World War. Could the pang of impending departure have sharpened Sir Anthony Dowell's sense of programme planning? If the remainder of his directorship goes like this, we'll love him forever.

La Valse makes a brilliant opener. The company has made several stabs at this frothy Frederick Ashton confection in recent seasons and they're doing it better and better. On the surface, it's a dance about dancing, about the waltz as a social lubricant, a fashionable opiate, a hedonistic ride. A ballroom is crammed with glamorous young couples who waltz until they drop, then waltz on.

But Ravel's fantastical, fatalistic score (written in 1920) adds a dark undertow to their pleasure. It's impossible not to think of death and catastrophe. The orchestra's mounting volume of sound (marvellously controlled by guest conductor Emmanuel Plasson) was almost frightening. The final chord quite thumped the breath out of me.

You wouldn't guess the Satie piece - a setting of his famous Gymnopédies - was by the same choreographer. Cool and spare, the three soloists top-to-toe in unforgiving white bodysuits, the dance keys into the music's drifting monotony in a kind of modernist dream. If only the Royal Ballet could find two men to match Darcey Bussell's cool, scrupulous line. The opening image, of Bussell hoisted like a mast into a half-past-twelve vertical - her knee pressed up against her own forehead - has a weird beauty unmatched in 20th-century ballet.

Ashton presents yet another facet of his genius in his 1947 Symphonic Variations - England's answer to Balanchine in America. But though the dancing didn't lack for detail or panache to match the scampering piano of Cesar Franck's score, the mirror-work was vague. Belinda Hatley and Jaimie Tapper are both lovely artists, but one's movements are sharp, the other's soft: here they need to match. And among the men, loose-jointed Johann Kobborg stands out a mile: he's just too watchable.

The novelty on the bill is Antony Tudor, a choreographer whose influence on British ballet far outweighs the number of works we get to see. Lilac Garden, made for Ballet Rambert in 1935, has the distinction of being the first ever psychological ballet. Its plot reads like a Henry James novella. At an outdoor engagement party a young woman (Sylvie Guillem) is taking leave of her old friends before marrying a man she does not love. She longs to say goodbye to the man she adores (Jonathan Cope), but is continually interrupted by her fiance or other guests. The fiance, in turn, is hounded by an old flame he'd rather avoid. And so the polite, repressed, quietly nightmarish spiral unwinds.

Nothing much happens in the course of 20 minutes. No dazzling steps, no histrionics (that's all in Chausson's music). But this very uneventfulness makes single gestures burn like neon signs: a tense hand extended behind her back to signal Guillem's secret agony, a lover on bended knee facing the wrong way. There is a startling filmic moment when Guillem steps out of the freeze-frame of a group photo and drifts on point to her lover's side, then meekly back to the place society has decreed for her.

I often wonder what Francis Poulenc would say had he known how Kenneth MacMillan planned to use his Gloria. Poulenc's choral music glows with Christian certitude. MacMillan's ballet questions the very existence of a God who could allow the carnage of the First World War. The tug between these creative poles gives the ballet huge emotional power, and this company knows exactly what it's doing with MacMillan's stirring and ambivalent images of memory, suffering and release. Death is rarely seen as such a blessing.

Mixed Bill: Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) Tues, Thurs, Fri and 20 Dec