Frederick Ashton's first reaction to the prospect of choreographing The Tales of Beatrix Potter was not, you may be unsurprised to learn, to twitch his ears and wag his tail excitedly. Was the world ready, he worried, for such an "explosion of sheer charm"? His reservations were well founded, and the 1970 feature film for which his dances were made, chiefly to animate an elaborate design concept, is now largely forgotten. What has survived is Anthony Dowell's later staging of the dances for live performance, revived by the Royal Ballet for the first time in 10 years, and currently converting as many adults as children to Ashton's dramatically astute and absorbing craft.
The initial thrill comes from the games the show plays with scale. The curtain opens on a flight of stairs, each riser the size of a house wall, on which perch two small mice, dangling spindly, quail-boned ankles and feet. In fact we're watching normal-sized dancers, but the trick of Rostislav Doboujinsky's spectacularly life-like animal masks and Christine Edzard's cleverly padded costumes is to shrink the performers' limbs, rendering Ashton's steps tinier and more intricate than they already are. It's an effect that wears thin, though, after a while.
More evolved, and lasting, pleasures derive from spotting the choreographer's in-jokes: the mouse waltz that converts the ribbon-play of Ashton's own La Fille Mal Garde into a game of skip-rope using each others' tail; the tarantella for Peter Rabbit that mimics his Neapolitan Dance, brandishing a lettuce in place of the traditional tambourine; and the bourree-ing, arm-rippling exit of poor, clumsy Jemima Puddleduck in the style of the Swan Queen. But the best and fondest joke of all and the most accessible to ballet first-timers is the glorious pas de deux for Pigling Bland and Pig-Wig, a romantic high spot made all the more touching by the noble manners of the porky danseur and the feminine delicacy of his Berkshire Black beloved, so bulkily jowled and so nimble of hoof.
A bouquet to Christina Elida Salerno for the performance I saw (which was also the one the BBC broadcast on New Year's Eve). Her Pig-Wig brought tears to my eyes, of which precise emotion I'm still not sure, given the heart-tugging setting of a Victorian kitchen hung with hams.
If Tales ambles somewhat, it's the fault of its being 10 minutes too long. Should Anthony Dowell ever consider revisions, he could do worse than excise Squirrel Nutkin, the loss of whose tail is tediously related, and frankly, already one tale de trop.
Les Patineurs, by contrast, a skating-party piece Ashton created in 1937, feels not long enough at 24 minutes. Its pleasures are of the champagne variety: sparkling Meyerbeer score, ravishingly pretty William Chappell designs (all snowy branches and glowing paper lanterns in a wintry dusk) and delightful, effortless skating metaphors: sashay, spin, slide and glide, with the odd spot of falling over on purpose, of course.
If there is a happier ballet in the Ashton repertory, then I've yet to see it. What a pity that the current run is short.
Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000) until TuesReuse content