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Marguerite and Armand, The Royal Ballet, Sergei Polunin and Tamara Rojo, Royal Opera House, London


Return of the prodigals: The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed bill is a celebration of choreographer Frederick Ashton, but the news of the evening is Sergei Polunin with Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand.

Last year, Polunin resigned from The Royal Ballet in a flurry of headlines, fed up with the art form and tempted to work in tattooing. Rojo has left the company too, and now directs English National Ballet. This revival is a formal farewell for her, a reopening of the door for him, and a passionate performance from both.

Ashton’s ballet tells the Traviata story of a consumptive courtesan who gives up her lover for his own good. Created in 1963, as a star vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, it keeps a tight focus on the two lovers. The music is a tempestuous Liszt piano sonata, tautly played by Robert Clark. Cecil Beaton’s designs are spare but highly romantic, all tulle and draperies.

On leaving the company, Polunin went through an iffy period, looking underprepared and shaky in guest performances. He’s since joined Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet and brought his superb technique back up to scratch, showing steady turns, a strong jump and assured charisma. He carries himself with an air of fierce pride. His Armand is very young, headstrong and touchy, but Polunin has gentle moments, too: I love the quiet way he holds the dead Marguerite’s hand.

As Marguerite, Rojo has blazing presence and a voluptuous flow to her dancing. Meeting Armand’s eyes for the first time, she lifts her chin just a little – struck but still self-possessed, in no way a pushover. She gives vivid weight to the drama’s still moments. Deciding to give Armand up, she slowly picks up a pillow from their bed, softly bows her face to it, then holds it tight, remembering everything she has to lose. In their duets, she moves with fluid abandon, hurling herself fearlessly into the partnering, into love.

The evening opened with a choppy performance of La Valse, and some delightful shorter Ashton works. Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov have strong presence in the swooning “Meditation” from Thaïs. Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell are adorable in the Voices of Spring pas de deux, purring through the floating steps, musical and funny and having fun.

The geometric patterns of Monotones are challenging but rewarding. Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech are grounded and warm in the first trio, though they need tighter unison. Edward Watson, Federico Bonelli partner a lusciously clear Marianela Nuñez in the second, flowing into exact groupings.

Until 23 February. Box office 020 7304 4000