Polyphonia/The Four Temperaments/Sinfonietta, Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Ballet in full flight
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The Independent Culture

With this triple bill, Monica Mason hits her stride as director of the Royal Ballet. After two full-length revivals, both familiar repertory, Mason's first new production is a fine ballet by Christopher Wheeldon. It is followed by a Balanchine masterpiece, and even the weakest work, Jiri Kylian's Sinfonietta, has the compensation of a Janacek score. There has been a hike in musical standards: Janacek and Hindemith have lured Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera's director, to make his conducting debut with the ballet.

Polyphonia was a breakthrough work for Christopher Wheeldon. He started as a dancer and choreographer with Royal Ballet then moved to New York City Ballet. With 2001's Polyphonia, he went from promising choreographer to the Next Big Thing.

Polyphonia, danced to Ligeti piano music, shows how much Wheeldon learnt in New York. The angular shapes and musical focus owe a lot to George Balanchine, the founding genius of NYCB. It is hard to follow the 20th century's greatest choreographer, but Polyphonia is not a dutiful imitation. It is bolder than the works Wheeldon made in Britain, and more individual.

It starts out fast and complicated, different motifs danced by four couples at once. Wheeldon returns to that opening spikiness, but the central dances are slow, languidly acrobatic. Jonathan Cope lies full length, holding Leanne Benjamin overhead; she arches slowly into a handstand, turning lazily through the air. Another couple waltz across the stage, the woman swept back into a dip as the music quietens. But the waltz keeps going, and her partner rocks her in time while she is down there.

This is a ballet that shows off its dancers. When NYCB danced it, they seemed to regain characteristically American qualities: the scale of movement, the command of space. At the Royal, it brings out the lyricism of the English style. It is a transatlantic ballet, flattering and strengthening both companies.

The Four Temperaments is one of Balanchine's greatest ballets. Hindemith's group of variations follows the idea of the humours: Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric versions of a theme. The ballet has themes and variations everywhere: complex structures growing from simple steps, ideas echoed, reinvented, transformed. The lead roles are set off by supporting soloists, by a small corps de ballet. Four women advance on the Melancholic soloist, each step a huge high kick followed by a forward thrust of the pelvis. The Phlegmatic corps shift their weight jazzily from one foot to the other, syncopated wit.

Balanchine still does not come naturally to the Royal Ballet. They could be bolder in rhythm and in covering space, more radical in those shifts of weight. But the brilliant steps and structure are clear, and individual dancers look lit up by this choreography.

The corps have moments of sudden attack, greater strength in their fast feet and twisting hips. Zenaida Yanowsky, the first-cast Sanguinic ballerina, danced with more scale and contrast than I have seen from her, her body bending forward and back with new energy and force. This is not the Royal Ballet's home ground, but they know they are dancing a masterpiece. It is a long way down to Kylian's Sinfonietta, a revival from last season. Kylian's choreography is all happy jumps and wistful brow-clutching: loud statements of non-specific emotion. Janacek's score was played well under Pappano.

Until 27 November (020-7304 4000)