Royal Ballet Celebration Programme, Royal Opera House, London

They thought it was over... it is now
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The Independent Culture

In the long and fond tradition of endings that can't bear to end, like Dudley Moore's crazy Beethoven piano pastiche, the farewell tributes to Anthony Dowell have gone on and on. But this is it now. Finished. Full stop. The ultimate programme of the Hochhauser Royal Ballet fortnight brought a final string of gala selections from Dowell's career. As if anyone was likely to forget.

The subtle ingenuity of Ashton's The Dream goes way beyond its Arthur Rackham-ish charm. And almost 40 years after its creation, when a meltingly young Dowell danced Oberon, it finds exemplary performances from the current team. On Wednesday, Giacomo Ciriaci shone as the pint-sized Puck, whose brilliant sycamore seed-spins and mile-a-minute energy made you forget how gratingly coy Pucks can often be.

Clips from Sleeping Beauty, Manon and Don Quixote supplied the more traditional gala-show ballast. Belinda Hatley's silvery clarity made the brief Beauty duet just about worth having. Sarah Wildor, as Manon, whipped up a rare old flurry of carnal desire. And the hispanic duo of Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta scorched the varnish from the floor in the duet from Don Q. Can those hops on and off point ever have been saucier? Or Basilio's barrel turns more brimming with machismo? Even when Acosta made a bad error in the descent from a climactic jump, he managed to make it look like a spunky innovation. They bring the house down every time, those two.

The programme needed Ashton's Monotones, set to mesmeric Erik Satie, if only to prevent the audience from mass cardiac arrest. And it got a commendable showing from Alastair Marriott, Zenaida Yanowsky and Maurice Vodegel-Matzen – all three looking more than presentable in the unforgiving white skin suits topped by little white skull caps, reminiscent of Woody Allen's sperm get-up. And the stainless steel precision of their movements just stopped me from nodding off.

That little collection would have sent even the pickiest customer home happy. But there was more – and then some. Ashton's A Month in the Country, created in 1975 using themes from Turgenev's play, falls into the category of Ashton narrative ballets that seem as if the music was written to fit the drama, not the other way around. The score is a patchwork of Chopin piano pieces, including the great Andante spianato, gloriously played on this occasion by Philip Gammon. The story turns on that familiar Russian scenario, that of the well-heeled, apparently well-ordered family, rocked by unfulfillable longings.

Ashton's achievement is such that any reasonably accomplished cast can make a good job of relaying the story. But put Sylvie Guillem at the hub of it and the drama shifts into a higher gear. You can't take your eyes off her Natalia, the middle-aged wife who falls egregiously in love with her ward Vera's tutor. Guillem is mistress of suspended animation, those moments of distilled emotion when the world momentarily omits to turn. Girlish excitement, lust, guilt, despair, all flicker through her frame in a miraculous merger of dance movement and dramatic transparency. And she gets first-class support from her colleagues: Alina Cojocaru's petulant Vera, David Drew's blameless and bumbling husband, and a star turn from guest Massimo Murru, as the loose-loined, devastating tutor.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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