When the curtain goes up, they're already dancing, darting and whirling through Bournonville's speedy footwork. These are festive dances, taken from the 19th-century ballet Napoli. The new Royal Ballet staging starts with speed, style and a sense of celebration.
Danced with La Sylphide, the Napoli divertissements make an all-Bournonville programme. This Danish choreographer mixes romanticism and down-to-earth humanity. In La Sylphide, the airy magic of the sylphs is set against a picturesque but still naturalistic world of weddings and folk dances. Napoli is best known for Bournonville's evocation of Naples, a city he visited and loved.
The new divertissements were staged by Johan Kobborg, the Royal Ballet's Danish star. Unusually, he includes a group dance from the first act, plus the well-known pas de six and tarantella. This makes the divertissements rather long: they don't always live up to that lively first impression. But this is still an exuberant mix of classical and folk-inflected dances, performed on a bare stage.
Napoli does lose something without its Neapolitan setting, though Kobborg works hard to create atmosphere without scenery. He keeps most of his dancers on stage, framing the action. The crowd is constantly moving, scurrying forward in excitement, sometimes stepping back to give a soloist more room. Kobborg's costume design is traditional, with some odd colour choices for the leading women. On opening night, due to lighting trouble, there were even weirder colours in the blue-sky backdrop.
Bournonville's steps are buoyant and fiercely difficult. Jumps tend to be bounces, rather than panther leaps, but the dancers have dozens of them: leaping, beating their feet, landing only to soar again. This is coloratura for the feet. Kobborg has cast a mix of Royal Ballet dancers, from principals to corps dancers. They all respond to these buoyant dances, though some show greater precision in the tricky footwork.
The amazing Steven McRae really does spend more time in the air than on the ground. He hovers through his solo, as if the landings were a matter of choice rather than gravity. Whizzing across the stage, Marianela Nunez finds time to luxuriate in the music.
In La Sylphide, a forest sylph tempts the Highlander James away on his wedding morning. She's irresistible, an enticing dream of the unattainable - but Bournonville also shows us what James gives up by chasing after her. In the marvellous Highland reel, dancers strut slowly or spring into fast footwork, whirling through lines and circles. The steps and patterns change constantly. As the sylph distracts him, James keeps breaking the pattern, stepping out of the dance, leaving a visible gap in his community.
The sylph is one of Alina Cojocaru's finest roles. She's the airiest of dancers, with heartbreaking vulnerability and a sweet touch of mischief. Her limbs float into position, soft as drifting snow. As James, Federico Bonelli dances with velvet line and crisp footwork. He also shows a new involvement in the drama: torn between home and sylph, responding with delight and horror to the action around him.
The horror comes from Madge the witch, magnificently played by the Danish guest star, Sorella Englund. She's bleakly funny in the fortune-telling, watching the effect of her predictions with amusement but no surprise. A second later, she turns on James with devastating anger. She throws her stick away, fury straightening the witch's lame leg, and rears herself up, with the focus and tension of a predator about to strike.
At some performances, La Sylphide will be paired with Ashton's Rhapsody rather than with Napoli. Carlos Acosta is half-perfect for this virtuoso showcase - he has the speed, the strength, the steps, but the mercurial wit doesn't come naturally to him. Nevertheless, it's a big, handsome performance. Leanne Benjamin flies through the ballerina role, delighting in its contrasts. She'll stop dead, right in the middle of the fastest footwork, and dart on before you realise she's stopped. You never see her change gear.
In repertory until 9 February; box office 020 7304 4000Reuse content