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

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The Independent Culture

Covent Garden sells out for the Royal Ballet School's annual matinee, the theatre packed with proud parents, teachers, talent-spotting fans, directors and critics. Besides looking out for future stars, we want to know the standard of Britain's best-known dance school. How clean are the techniques, how good the style?

This year's dancers performed with confidence. Some need to use their backs more, to support arm movements from the spine.

Programming for these end-of-year shows is hard. Directors must find ballets for very young dancers, showing the range of styles they teach. But ballets made for youngsters may flatter rather than test them; they may also fall flat as theatre.

This year, Gailene Stock, the director of the Royal Ballet School, included Ashton's Birthday Offering and Balanchine's Serenade, showing senior students in established repertory.

For years, there have been fears that Ashton was in eclipse at the Royal Ballet School, where changes to the syllabus had put less emphasis on the founder choreographer. Yet these young dancers, coached by Jacquelin Barrett and Gary Norman, don't look fazed by Ashton's style. In the opening waltz, the seven couples lilt and sway with happy assurance.

The real test comes with the solos. Ashton made this ballet as a pièce d'occasion, a party piece that would show off seven established ballerinas. (Ballet-goers still call the solos after those seven dancers - Beryl Grey's variation, Nadia Nerina's.) These student performances don't have ballerina radiance, and there were a few shakes. Still, the ballet's shape was unsmudged. The point of each solo was clear, what Ashton does through the intricate footwork, the quick changes of direction. The outstanding performance came from Quenby Hersh, in the penultimate solo (Beryl Grey's) - clear line, bright attack and lucid musical phrasing.

Balanchine's Serenade, originally made for student dancers, is one of his most loved works. The style has always been hard for non-American companies; its lyricism demands great speed and attack. The Royal Ballet School performance tends to soften it, with Annie Carroll smiling and acting too much as this pure-dance ballet's "heroine". But Carroll, like the rest of the company, doesn't look afraid of the work, dancing clearly.

Vanessa Fenton's Step by Step, made for the students of the Lower School, is an abstract work with plenty of Balanchine echoes. Performances are lively, though Fenton needs to get more attack from her dancers.

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