More polish than a Biedermeier commode

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When an impresario such as Victor Hochhauser books Covent Garden for a fortnight, you can be sure he has public taste in his pocket. The line-up in the Hochhauser Royal Ballet fortnight can hardly be said to break new ground: Manon in its 160th RB performance, Giselle in its 456th, and a bill of "20th-Century Masterpieces", all reheated from the season just gone. The point of Hochhauser's pick'n'mix is not just to give the public what they clearly still want more of, but to display the Royal Ballet at its best. And for the most part this is what it did, magnificently.

When an impresario such as Victor Hochhauser books Covent Garden for a fortnight, you can be sure he has public taste in his pocket. The line-up in the Hochhauser Royal Ballet fortnight can hardly be said to break new ground: Manon in its 160th RB performance, Giselle in its 456th, and a bill of "20th-Century Masterpieces", all reheated from the season just gone. The point of Hochhauser's pick'n'mix is not just to give the public what they clearly still want more of, but to display the Royal Ballet at its best. And for the most part this is what it did, magnificently.

No one buys a seat for Manon or Giselle to find out what happens in the story. They go to see individual artistry. And for all its peripheral problems, the Royal Ballet still has the clout to attract and retain world-class talent. In Manon, the mature pairing of Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope elevates a potentially tawdry display of flesh and 18th-century avarice into glittering tragedy. Irek Mukhamedov, at 40 still worth his weight in grand tier tickets, supplies comic ballast and muscular rocket power.

Another mature dancer, 35-year-old Miyako Yoshida, now brings to her fondant sweetness a steely edge as Giselle: greater muscle definition, leaner lines, and a refinement of acting that overrides the limitations of her doll-like features and makes the whole body an expressive tool. Her mad scene, when the fact of Albrecht's deception sinks in, was devastating in its shuddering blankness. And her resurrection from the grave as a wili- a spirit intent on revenge - had chilling force as she shed the last of her mortal coils in that weird, helicoptered, flat-of-the-foot spin. I've not seen it so fast, so stern or so fiendish.

Too often Giselle is perceived as a stand-alone role, her male partner consigned to stand about like a lemon while she lives her desperate plight and its aftermath. But in Johan Kobborg, the Royal Ballet has at last got itself a Count Albrecht to engage with: properly aristocratic of bearing, fully three-dimensional of character, so that for once we not only follow all the ins and outs of the Act I plot, but map the waverings of Albrecht's conscience. He's guilty thrice over: deceiver of a peasant girl, deceiver of his royal fiancée, and a traitor to his class. Never before has Albrecht's discomfort on being caught out wearing the wrong kit registered so clearly or so meaningfully.

All this in addition to Kobborg's dancing, which confirms the Danes' fabled pre-eminence in the Romantic style. The buoyant leap and clean lines come pretty much as standard. But what detail! Kobborg's difficult off-centre jumps have more polish than a Biedermeier commode, his entrechats more snip and dazzle than a crimper's scissor-blades. Welcome ballet's rising superstar of the new decade. How clever of the Royal Ballet to get him.

The same note of triumph sounded in the 20th-century programme. Frederick Ashton's one-act ballet Marguerite and Armand caused much supercilious sniffing and grimacing when first revived earlier this year on the grounds that it was made for Fonteyn and Nureyev to dance and no one else. But the sniffers and grimacers were properly put in their place by the reckless ardour and brilliance of Sylvie Guillem's performance. She resembles Margot Fonteyn neither physically nor temperamentally, yet Guillem is undoubtedly as great an artist.

From the simplest, most limpidly nuanced gestures of dejection after the meeting with Armand's father (itself a beautifully judged reading by veteran David Drew), to the wild excesses of her love - flinging herself at Armand with animal abandon - Guillem's is a mesmerising performance which has gained in depth and insight since the spring. And like the gilt-edged investment that she is, Guillem has attracted more smart money in the shape of Paris Opera Ballet's Nicolas Le Riche, a great stallion of a dancer who gives Armand's high-romantic stance the meat and stature it that demands.

I can see why Fokine's 1910 Firebird might be an attraction, but in this revival its exotic fantasy looked more mimsy than a Rupert Bear adventure. It took Jerome Robbin's surreally hilarious The Concert to put the evening back on track: Darcey Bussell engagingly dippy, Johan Kobborg a manic cigar-chomping lech, the whole company having an absolute ball.

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