Moira Shearer - who died aged 80 a week ago - had been the ballerina who shone brightest when George Balanchine first mounted his Ballet Imperial on the Royal in 1950, and it was fitting that the first night of this revival was dedicated to her. As a programme note points out, Margot Fonteyn (who led the first night) didn't suit Balanchine's choreography, and its Russian-American scale and élan are still a major challenge to a company raised on a gentler dynamic.
As the title suggests, Ballet Imperial is a nod to the glamour of the St Petersburg court. Set to Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto, beneath a ballroom canopy of vast bronze swags, this is neo-classicism at its grandest, the women decked in diamonds, the men in beautiful manners. There is no plot, only patterns, which in Balanchine's hands become kaleidoscopic worlds within worlds, formed and reformed at dizzying speed. He sends the corps cantering down avenues, displays them in lozenges and squares and concentric circles, then dissolves these into ever more glittering intermeshings. The Royal's corps coped with aplomb.
But the most eye-popping feats are left to the two ballerinas, and on Saturday it was Darcey Bussell who stole the show, throwing off the fast, reversing, on-pointe hops in arabesque with an ease you could mistake for pure pleasure. Zenaida Yanowsky also triumphed over length of limb in allegro dancing that was frankly amazing for its security at hair-raising tempi, but hers was more obviously a technique at full stretch. Rupert Pennefather, though not entirely disguising his terror at partnering Bussell, nevertheless gave impeccable support, and impressed with his beautiful jumps.
There was more Balanchine to come: the so-called Tchaikovsky pas de deux which, if anything, made an even fizzier impact in its scant 10 minutes. This was largely down to casting: newcomer Alexandra Ansanelli is an American with Balanchine in her blood, and she tackled the technical challenges with a verve that amounted to outright glee, flinging herself into the fish-dives and ricocheting from impossible balance to impossible balance with a relish that made you want to whoop. I swear I saw her briefly extend her tongue and waggle it mischievously as she sprang into a particularly flavoursome pose. And that enthusiasm infected Federico Bonelli too: no longer was he merely elegant and correct. He was having a ball, and the audience loved it.
Carlos Acosta and Sarah Lamb cast a more calming spell in Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun - a near-perfect duet that applies the familiar Debussy score to an erotic encounter in a dance studio. Though Robbins's faun embodies hints of Nijinsky's feral creature, he's also just a typical male ballet dancer: physically gorgeous, self-absorbed, and more interested in his reflection in the mirror than the girl who just walked in. Robbins cleverly works up the theme of dreamy narcissism, using the audience as the mirrored wall, so that the dancers are constantly peering out at us to gauge their effect. Acosta - his tousled hair making him look about 15 - has never been more alluring while Lamb - a blank-faced Twiggy - makes a sexily impassive muse.
The evening ends with yet another footnote of Russian history, with Fokine's The Firebird, the ballet in which Diaghilev repackaged old Russian folklore as flaming modernist pageant, choosing a refusnik of the Imperial Ballet to give a new stamp to the movement, and a young unknown by name of Stravinsky to write the score. The Royal Ballet long ago made this work its own, but few Firebirds have proved as farouche as Leanne Benjamin's, and Edward Watson finds an interesting new slant on the tsarevich, playing him as a medieval peasant who, by dint of faith and valour, proves his right to rule.
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