Les Saisons, Royal Opera House, London

Best of British bask in a seasonal glow
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The Independent Culture

At last, three cheers for the Royal Ballet. Its new programme contains three works by three of the company's own choreographers, all British and all good. They include the season's only creation, which is also David Bintley's first for Covent Garden in 10 years. Bintley likes making story ballets, but he also does some inventive all-dance pieces, and this is one of them.

The highly attractive music is by Glazunov, lovingly played under Barry Wordsworth's direction. This score was written in 1900 for one of Petipa's last ballets, and is ideal for display dancing (extracts from it are familiar from Ashton's Birthday Offering). Bintley adopts its French title, Les Saisons, to distinguish it from the Seasons ballet he made to Verdi for his own Birmingham company a couple of years back.

He adopts a freer structure this time, too, following the year's progress from winter through spring and summer to autumn, but with overlaps when one season usurps another's time (haven't we seen that too often lately?), and he allows his cast to mingle in a mass finale.

The outcome is 40 minutes of varied, mostly enchanting dances. At first it seems that women will have the upper hand as five of them swiftly follow each other in contrasted solos for Winter: Bintley adds a touch of humour at times, and he lets the dancers show remarkable speed or delicacy. In Spring, too, Alina Cojocaru has most of the going in her pretty solos, with her partner Johan Kobborg largely in the background, supporting her flights of fancy across the stage.

In Summer, for the first time an ensemble, albeit all women, join the principal couple; Jonathan Cope partnering Isabel McMeekan, who reveals special charm. But then Autumn brings on more men, a small but strong team led by Martin Harvey, and now Bintley lets rip to show all the men in powerful form, exuberant and soaring in their sustained leaps.

The ballet would have looked more stylishly dazzling in the days when the Royal Ballet had more women of actual or potential ballerina manner, but Bintley has made the most of the soloists he has chosen. All the women benefit from Charles Quiggin's costume designs. From the way he ensures that many differently detailed skirts all go well together, you would scarcely believe that this is his first ballet. Quiggin and the set designer, Peter J Davison, cleverly provide an increase of colour at apt moments.

Two other master works, also to exceptional scores, make up the show. Frederick Ashton was the greatest of all English choreographers, and we see too little of his work. The Stravinsky Scènes de ballet is doubly welcome, as it contains arguably Ashton's most beautiful dance invention. Likewise, Song of the Earth is Kenneth MacMillan's best ballet, full of true emotion and powerful patterns inspired by Mahler's score, in contrast to the overhyped pieces by him that have crammed programmes for too long. It's a strong cast, too, led by a real ballerina, Tamara Rojo, although the two fine singers, Jean Rigby and John Daszak, could have done with more power to cut through the large orchestra.

This programme ought to have been dedicated to the company's founder, Ninette de Valois (born 105 years ago next month), who brought on all these choreographers. It's worth noting that it was devised by the big bad bogeyman, the ex-director Ross Stretton. Just one big snag: ludicrously few performances are scheduled, so there is little time in which to see the Royal Ballet at its present best.