The Royal Ballet season opened with some serious dazzle.
Created in 1967, Balanchine's Jewels is an evening of plotless ballets, linked by the theme of precious stones. Handsomely staged by Elyse Borne and Patricia Neary, it puts plenty of the company's stars on stage, with dancing that goes from fizz to grandeur.
The three jewels evoke different countries, different eras of ballet. Emeralds, danced to music by Fauré, is French and romantic. The costume designer Barbara Karinska dresses the women in long, soft skirts. Tamara Rojo is sumptuous in the first ballerina role. In the second, Leanne Benjamin is dartingly quick, with a mercurial quality to her changes of direction.
The ballet has a strange, misty atmosphere. Balanchine arranges a grand finale – then comes back for a last movement, the dancers pacing to and fro as horn calls sound in the music. We've gone from a court party to an enchanted wood.
Rubies is definitely urban, Balanchine and Stravinsky evoking America, with a vaudeville kick to the dancing. Steven McRae made a sensational debut in the leading role. He deliberately slows his corkscrew turns, in order to speed them back up again, spinning off stage like a syncopated whirlwind.
He's matched by Sarah Lamb, a hilarious jazz-age heroine. In her solo, she pulls in her hands like paws, dips her knees, swivels her hips. Each twist is a perfect punchline; you never know which joint will boggle next. Zenaida Yanowsky's footwork is tested by the footwork of the "showgirl" role, but she dances with exuberant, long-limbed energy.
The corps de ballet have a wonderful time as chorus girls, assertive and characterful. Valeriy Ovsyanikov's conducting was slightly airless; this is a hard-edged score, but it could have more space to breathe.
Diamonds looks back to Imperial Russia, with Tchaikovsky and tutus. The ballerina role is an extraordinary mix of grandeur and abandon. Alina Cojocaru melts into the backbends, fearless in the off-balance moves. There's a beautiful warmth in her musical phrasing. Rupert Pennefather is a princely cavalier, with clear dancing and devoted partnering.
Around them, four soloists flit about like fairies, then turn stately when a twist in Tchaikovsky's music reminds them that they're really Russian. The final polonaise brings the full corps on stage, ending the evening in a triumphant rush.
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