Frederick Ashton's gorgeous ballet Les Patineurs turns dancers into skaters. They slip-slide across the stage, spinning and gliding and sometimes falling over. Each soloist is vividly characterised: every step shows the different personalities, from the wobbly beginners to the soaring show-offs.
This Royal Ballet revival is irresistible. Ashton makes virtuosity funny; here, the virtuoso performances were the strongest. Steven McRae is spectacular as the skater in blue. His first solo whips through intricate jumps and spins, literally shrugging off his latest dazzling feat. McRae is casually brilliant, wittily musical. When he dances off, shoulders swinging in Ashton's "skating" run, he looks both demure and pleased with himself.
He's matched by Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe as the girls in blue. Picking their way on pointe, with a little bounce to each step, they suggest skates chipping into the ice. Both women have musical phrasing and a delicate sense of style. Morera whirls, snatches a held pose out of the air, changes it and whirls on. Choe's flurry of fouetté turns is stunning: she throws in double spins, apparently from sheer glee.
If the blue girls are champions, the red pair are beginners. Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch wobble onto the stage. The step combinations bump them up and down, suggesting their unsteadiness on the ice. Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather are softly romantic in a pas de deux, though her leg positions are extreme for this sweet Victorian couple.
William Chappell's designs frame the stage with trees, formal arches and coloured lanterns. His skaters wear neat little jackets, bonnets and caps. The music is Constant Lambert's bouncy arrangement of Meyerbeer. The corps de ballet weave in and out, making neat patterns or lining up in an unsteady conga. As the blue girls prance across the front of the stage, corps and soloists pass by in elaborate groupings at the back.
When snow falls on the skaters, they interrupt their dance to marvel, then plunge on. They separate as night falls, leaving the blue boy still spinning as the curtain falls. McRae's last burst is marvellous: he turns with exuberant momentum, unstoppable and happy.
The Royal Ballet tends to pair Patineurs with the scampering animals of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. Still, this performance was a reminder that the Tales is Ashton too, with some crisp dancing under the fur and feathers.
The choreography was created for a 1971 film. In 1992, after the choreographer's death, Anthony Dowell staged this theatre version. Potter's animals, with their distinctive costumes and masks by Rostislav Doboujinsky, are instantly familiar.
It's too long and far too twee, blurring Potter's storytelling and her precise sense of animal behaviour. Even the better "tales" are over-extended, with threat and danger mostly left offstage. The production does have nice touches: the sparkling splash as Jeremy Fisher dives into the water; the squirrels punting across a lake. Ashton sneaks in dance jokes. Pig-wig's entrance echoes the Sugar Plum Fairy's, while Jemima Puddle-Duck's exit is pure Dying Swan.
With all its flaws, this revival has energy and some unexpected charm. The dancing is genuinely impressive, with soloists making the most of Ashton's stronger dances. Ricardo Cervera's Johnny Town-Mouse swaggers through a lively number, strutting with his cane. Paul Kay's Squirrel Nutkin is vividly naughty. Morera and Samantha Raine give clean performances as Pig-wig and Jemima. Best of all, Jonathan Howells makes a brilliant Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, radiating personality through layers of padding, costume and prickles.
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