Mixed bill, Royal Opera House, London WC2

Never better (despite the virus and the heavy hand on the light switch)
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The Independent Culture

In a Royal Ballet year already thin on new work it was a major blow when the world's most-wanted young choreographer fell ill with a virus last month. Only days into creating a piece for the Royal's mixed bill, Christopher Wheeldon was forced to cry off. So in place of big new Wheeldon, audiences were offered small old Wheeldon, followed by a late creation by Balanchine, the man whose influence seeps from the 30-year-old's every pore. But did this seem a mean exchange? Not a bit, given its place in a programme already brimming with good things.

In a Royal Ballet year already thin on new work it was a major blow when the world's most-wanted young choreographer fell ill with a virus last month. Only days into creating a piece for the Royal's mixed bill, Christopher Wheeldon was forced to cry off. So in place of big new Wheeldon, audiences were offered small old Wheeldon, followed by a late creation by Balanchine, the man whose influence seeps from the 30-year-old's every pore. But did this seem a mean exchange? Not a bit, given its place in a programme already brimming with good things.

Instead, the spotlight turned on the first item, Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody, given a fresh look with new designs by Jessica Curtis. The steps, created in 1980 to showcase the jump-jet qualities of Mikhail Baryshnikov, should have guaranteed this ballet a warm spot in the repertory. But the designs let the side down. The originals were deemed too sparkly, Patrick Caulfield's 1995 playing-card theme too harsh and bright, and the ballet has been mothballed ever since.

Curtis's backdrop shows a stormy-pink Turner sky that varies in broodiness with Neil Austin's lighting (overall, for my eyesight, this could have done with a gentler hand on the dimmer). Costumes are in flesh tints and pistachio, cut to give the girls rhapsodic drift, the boys a strong triangle shape. Ivan Putrov took the Baryshnikov role on Monday, with Miyako Yoshida as his muse. Neither comes with much of a reputation for partner-chemistry, but this is all to the good in Rhapsody where each star is set to glitter alone. In fact, Putrov has been bluebirding about the stage in absurdly difficult screw-jumps and sissonnes for a good 10 minutes before Yoshida appears, glimmering into view like a moth held aloft on a tremolando chord.

The company as a whole has rarely looked better in any Ashton ballet, bending gloriously into the upper-body detailing, the footwork sharp as glass. Yet the ravishing impact is as much due to the subtlety of the orchestra (under Valery Ovsyanikov) and solo pianist Philip Gammon. Under Ovsyanikov's baton, even Rachmaninov's swelling love melody got the velvet-glove treatment, restrained to such a degree that the less-restrained humalongs in the audience threatened to break the spell.

Something more like a swoon announces the opening bars of Pavane, the seven-minute duet Wheeldon made when he was only 23. Given the scope and depth of his achievement since, it looks what it is: a slight piece. All the same, revived with its original cast of Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, the writing has a languorous ease, not to mention the most stunning opening idea. The image of Bussell being unwound from a satin sheath of a skirt under the shadow of Bob Crowley's giant, priapic arum lily has fuelled more than a few private fantasies since its inception.

There was more grist in the other replacement, Balanchine's Duo Concertant, in an exemplary reading by Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru - or rather violinist Peter Manning and pianist Philip Gammon, for it is they who stand their ground centre-stage, while the dancers keep breaking off to stand by the piano and listen, as if deferring to Stravinsky's music. I've seen plenty of fine American couples dance this piece, but none was ever so playful, loving, or downright smart.

Balanchine's Symphony in C signed off the bill somewhat less satisfactorily. Was the tempo a touch sluggish, or were the dancers feeling how they looked? Tragic how white tutus make all but the twiggiest girls look fat. Future programmes substitute Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, which should work better.

Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), 1, 2 & 5 April

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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