Royal Ballet Mixed Programme, Royal Opera House, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Darcey displays her majesty
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's new quadruple bill starts at court, with a blaze of dancing, and ends with the bright colours of a folk tale. It's a superb programme, but a nerve-racking one.

The nerves come from Ballet Imperial, one of the most demanding works in the repertoire. Balanchine's 1941 ballet returns to the grand, pre-Revolutionary classicism of his native St Petersburg. The ballerina rules a court of soloist and corps, while the plotless choreography evokes the majesty, and the poetry, of 19th-century ballets.

Balanchine spares nobody. Every dancer on stage has brilliant, intricate steps, and must dance them with freedom and ease. The Royal Ballet are dancing strongly, but at first I wanted them to dance on a larger scale. Darcey Bussell has the grand line and ease of movement, but her phrasing is nervily abrupt. Zenaida Yanowsky races to catch the second ballerina role. The calmest performance comes from Rupert Pennefather, partnering Bussell. His dancing is strong and smooth, and the hints of mime are given with unforced nobility.

More performances should bring more assurance from the whole cast. By the third movement, the company are dancing full out, Balanchine's steps springing from Tchaikovsky's rhythms. In the finale, a block of corps dancers, men and women, start to walk - crisp steps to the left, then to the right. Those zigzags suggest the to-and-fro of court dances, with the changes of direction made ever more bold and grand, covering more of the stage with each step. Standing among them, the ballerina starts a series of fouetté turns: as the corps open out, we see her blazing away, already in full flight. It's as if clouds have parted, revealing the sun.

In Afternoon of a Faun, set to Debussy's Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Jerome Robbins has moved the encounter between faun and nymph to a modern ballet studio. Jean Rosenthal's set, made in translucent gauze, is an open space, with the broader space of the stage behind it. The "fourth wall" of the stage is the studio's mirror: looking at us, the two dancers are watching each other, and their own beautiful bodies. Carlos Acosta stretches in the sun, but though he moves elegantly he doesn't suggest the faun's warm narcissism. Sarah Lamb coolly watches her own long limbs, enjoying each stretch and turn. Barry Wordsworth conducts a sensuous account of the Debussy score.

Alexandra Ansanelli, formerly a principal with New York City Ballet, joins the Royal this year. She makes her company debut in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky pas de deux, an exuberant gala number made for NYCB. Ansanelli is obviously and happily a Balanchine dancer, with bright attack and an expansive flow of movement. I'm already curious to see how she'll fit into British repertory. She was partnered by Federico Bonelli, whose soft, easy dancing shows flourish without exaggeration.

The evening ends with The Firebird, Stravinsky's first ballet score. Leanne Benjamin dances the title role with attack and vivid narrative drive, carrying you into the world of the folk tale. Her dancing, still forceful, has a new fluidity; she darts through the air, a wild creature. Edward Watson, replacing an injured Jonathan Cope, is too wispy for the peasant prince: the hero's firm mime gestures aren't fully sustained. With Genesia Rosato's beautiful Tsarevna, you can't see where mime stops and dancing begins: the gestures have a buoyant grace, and the dancing is always dramatically inflected.

To 8 March (020-7304 4000)

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