Royal Ballet Mixed Bill, Royal Opera House, London


Waltzing couples whirling to Ravel lack the passion of layered duets and chilly laments inspired by Chekhov

To make something out of nothing is the challenge for every creative artist.

Frederick Ashton's La Valse is basically that very simple thing, a social waltz – scores of couples crammed into a ballroom dipping and bobbing and narrowly missing one another, starting out polite and neatly combed and gradually, as pulses quicken and bowties loosen and Ravel's music begins to swoon and swoop, waltzing their dizzy way to perdition.

When Ravel wrote that music, it was pronounced undanceable. "A masterpiece," said Diaghilev, "but not a ballet", and I'm sorry, but he was right. The score begins as a tentative thing that turns wild and demonic. Not once, though, in the Royal Ballet's rendering of Frederick Ashton's 1958 ballet, do you sense impending impropriety. In the music, there is an electric charge in the delay of the double-dotted rhythm. In the dance, the women are lifted in the air and plopped down willy-nilly, which fatally undermines the music's thrust, taming the entire enterprise. Whether the fault is with choreography or performance, it's hard to say.

What's certain is that Kim Brandstrup, whose new work comes next in this generous mixed bill, is acutely conscious of the suggestive power that lurks in the gaps between sound and step. Invitus, invitam deliberately draws on sparseness, taking its title from a line of Latin history which describes, in just six words, the predicament of the adulterous emperor Titus and his lover Berenice. It hardly amounts to a plot. Yet from it Brandstrup creates three expansive duets which not only hint at the subtle shifts of power-play within the affair, but flesh out the couple's past.

Suggestion is everywhere. It's there in the set which resembles a ghostly drawing-board on which chalk marks magically appear and fade. It's in the music – Couperin filtered through the ear of Thomas Adès, haunting, half-remembered scraps. It's there in the shadowy modern couple holding clipboards who sketch movements with their limbs as if trying to excavate ballets past. The piece is short yet so richly layered that you're left feeling that it still has more to reveal.

Where Brandstrup hints, Kenneth MacMillan grabs by the collar. Winter Dreams, his daring compression of the entire emotional arc of a Chekhov play, brings detailed individuality not only to three sisters, but also to their soldier-lovers, their mother, brother, sister-in-law, a cast-off husband and two servants, one of whom triumphs in the unlikely comedy stakes of drunkenly falling off a chair too many times to be funny. Tchaikovsky issues from an onstage piano and the wistful folk-simplicity of a balalaika band made me want to cry. It's invidious to pick out individual turns – this is the kind of dramatic ensemble stuff the Royal Ballet does best. Suffice to say that Marianela Nuñez, in the role of Masha, gives away her heart and regrets it devastatingly. After this, Balanchine's Theme and Variations, for all its diamond grandeur, felt superfluous.

To 30 Oct (020-7304 4000)

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