Requiem/A Wedding Bouquet/Les Noces, Royal Opera House, London

A marriage made in heaven
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet opened its autumn season in alert, confident form. This is an ambitious triple bill: ballets by Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Bronislava Nijinska, including choral scores by Stravinsky and Fauré. The dancing is stylish throughout.

This is Ashton year at the Royal Ballet. Its Ashton 100 celebrations mark the centenary of the birth of the company's founder choreographer. A Wedding Bouquet, the first of many revivals this season, has been out of repertory for 15 years. It's come back in exuberant shape. This 1937 ballet uses Lord Berners's musical setting of Gertrude Stein's text, brightly conducted by Barry Wordsworth. The words, chanted by a deadpan narrator, are comments on (or at a wild tangent to) events on stage. It's buoyantly characterised, full of gorgeous dances: sweeping waltzes and tangos, wittily fast footwork.

An Edwardian wedding party assembles, has its photograph taken, and behaves increasingly badly. The bridegroom, it seems, has already seduced at least one of the female guests; the lovelorn Julia follows him, hair hanging over her face. Violet chases Ernest, but becomes dejected. "Thérèse, I am older than a boat," the narrator proclaims, and Violet sorrowfully makes a rowing movement. Josephine (a roguish Zenaida Yanowsky) gets tipsy.

Johan Kobborg is brilliantly sleazy as the Bridegroom, harassed and put-upon, trying to partner his bride while Julia (Tamara Rojo) hangs on to his leg. Alone at last, he breaks into a sidling, insinuating tango, eyes flashing with narcissism.

Alina Cojocaru's Bride is sweetly, prettily dim, all blonde ringlets and half-witted smiles. She's faintly aware that Julia must be a problem, though she doesn't quite know why. The wedding dance (the Bride in tutu with blue garter) is a classical pas de deux gone wrong; she sweeps her leg up in arabesque, and he tries to push it back down again.

Anthony Dowell is a dry narrator, but on opening night he was poorly amplified. You had to strain to hear him over the orchestra; the audience laughed most at the visual jokes, or at words spoken in silence.

It's a nice idea to balance this Ashton ballet with one by MacMillan, the Royal Ballet's other defining choreographer. This Requiem is powerfully danced, but the ballet itself looks piously blank. MacMillan sets Fauré's Requiem as an abstract lament. There are a few religious echoes - a suffering solo for a man in a loincloth, dancers standing in cruciform poses. It's full of elaborate, grappled lifts, yet it lacks MacMillan's usual sense of physical drama. On opening night, the chorus and orchestral playing lacked focus.

The dancing is taut and clear. Darcey Bussell, back from maternity leave, phrases her steps with rich detail, though her bounding jump seems slightly constricted. Carlos Acosta is warm and lithe in the loincloth role. Leanne Benjamin is too downright for the sugared naivety of the "Pie Jesu".

The evening ends with Les Noces, a very different choral work, a very different wedding. Nijinska's account of a Russian peasant wedding is a stark masterpiece, the corps de ballet stamping through Stravinsky's rhythms with ritual force. There was some uncertain phrasing from the musicians in the last scene, but the dancing kept its power and ferocity.

In repertory to 8 November (020-7304 4000)

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