Royal Ballet: Balanchine, Royal Opera House, London

Stars dim the lustre
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The Independent Culture

It's worth struggling through the snow for the Royal Ballet's celebration of choreographer George Balanchine's centenary: it is a triple bill of masterpieces. Prodigal Son was made in 1929 for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Agon for Balanchine's own New York City Ballet in 1957 and Symphony in C, the perfect closing ballet, for the Paris Opéra in 1947.

Prodigal Son was a stargazer's paradise, with Sylvie Guillem as the Siren to Carlos Acosta's Prodigal. In fact, Guillem was the evening's weakest casting. Yes, she's a star; yes, she's a glamorous stage presence. But she dances against the grain of this New Testament parable: she's a cancan poster girl pasted onto a Russian icon.

When Balanchine's Siren grips the Prodigal between her thighs, the image is at once sexually explicit and icily stylised. It's the cruellest eroticism, but Guillem prettifies it. She makes much of the sky-high legs but skimps on the weighty gestures. Her Siren is a flirtatious cousin to her naturalistic Manon. Why would the companions parade this girl as a totem? There's no ritual to her, and no force.

Acosta, meanwhile, is a young and rather classical Prodigal. Flinging himself against parental restraint, he can't help turning his tantrums to a smooth academic finish. His polish is so involuntary that it becomes touching, the boy's training coming through in spite of himself.

Despite Guillem, the ballet comes through strongly in Pat Neary's staging. The servants and drinking companions were forcefully danced, though the companions should be firmly restrained from taking curtain calls in character. Prokofiev's score sounded fine under Alex Ingram, while George Rouault's designs - sweeps of brooding colour - looked wonderful.

The classicism of Agon stretches from court ballet to New York jazz. The fanfares and metres of Stravinksy's serialist score look back to the 17th century; Balanchine's steps pounce on the jazz rhythms. Movement flows through the dancers' bodies - hips thrusting forwards as legs thrust back, positions stretched open and squeezed tight shut.

The Royal Ballet is now an international company, and it danced Agon in several different accents. (Conductor Paul Hoskins's sludgy rhythms didn't help to even out the tone.) The corps of girls were still a little prim, but the soloists struck out powerfully, catching more of the ballet's energy.

Of these headline names, Zenaida Yanowsky is getting bolder with every Balanchine role she dances. Returning to the great pas de deux, she had found more contrast, more scale and much more glamour. Johan Kobborg's steps, still cut-glass, were freer. Lauren Cuthbertson, replacing an injured Jaimie Tapper, was sharp and bright in the ballet's sudden changes of direction.

Symphony in C, first named Le Palais de Cristal, was all sparkle and youthful grandeur. Four ballerinas, each with cavalier and court, danced steps set to to Bizet's early symphony (conducted by Hoskins, on better form). It can be staged on a grander scale, but this performance fizzed along. The allegro sections were strongest, especially with Laura Morera leading the country dances of the third movement, though Cuthbertson, stepping in for the pregnant Darcey Bussell, needed more authority for the great slow movement. The finale saw the stage overflow with dancers, polishing steps into brightness.

In repertory until 25 February (020-7304 4000)