Royal Ballet Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Ballets can fade between performances, steps in place but spirit gone. For the last programme of this season, the Royal Ballet has revived two famously subtle works. Both are warmly alive.

Ballets can fade between performances, steps in place but spirit gone. For the last programme of this season, the Royal Ballet has revived two famously subtle works. Both are warmly alive.

Nijinska's Les Biches, made for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1924, is sweet and sharp-tongued. Poulenc's score, brightly conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, has hints of jazz, irony, sourness, and there are more hints in Nijinska's choreography, with its delicate atmosphere and fiendish, springy steps.

The corps, in pastel shades and reckless feather headdresses, dance and laugh and spy. Three athletes, muscular boys in 1920s beachwear, pose solemnly. One fetches up with an ambiguous pageboy/girl; the others are sidetracked by the Hostess.

It's almost pure dance - no relationships spelt out - and notoriously hard to pull off. In this revival, enough comes through. Leanne Benjamin needs a little more irony as the pageboy, but she's sleek in the role's angled steps. Laura Morera and Isabel McMeekan are wonderful as two (possibly lesbian) girls in grey; fast feet, hands or arms linked. Martin Harvey is splendidly dim as the lead athlete.

Darcey Bussell's feet are beautifully sharp, but she's not a woman of the world. As the Hostess, she shows predatory glints without bringing them to life. The Royal Ballet are still getting their feet round all those steps. There were adjustments, but jumps are buoyant, feet cleanly stretched, upper bodies expressive.

Symphonic Variations, made in 1946, was Ashton's first ballet for Covent Garden. He used the big stage by clearing it, leaving six dancers in front of Sophie Fedorovitch's spring-green backdrop. The dance sparkles with quick footwork, but it's a ballet of great serenity; it demands purity of line. At stage back, Federico Bonelli, Johan Kobborg and Steven McRae stand with clear calm. Alina Cojocaru, Laura Morera and Belinda Hatley gleam in fast steps, glow in poses.

There are still some hasty or exaggerated accents, but the work's freshness has returned. I loved the assurance of these dancers, stepping forward for the solos. In the duet, Bonelli and Cojocaru danced with absorption. Philip Gammon was the fine piano soloist in César Franck's score. Symphonic is a beloved ballet: this audience cheered it.

A Month in the Country was less assured. Plasson conducted a thumping performance of the Chopin score. Ashton's version of Turgenev's play is full of fluttering conversational gesture: it becomes melodramatic when the orchestra doles out thunderclaps.

Sylvie Guillem isn't a natural Ashtonian, but she brings needed tautness to a crisp account of the heroine's passions. Her partner, Massimo Murru, smudged his steps and flailed through the drama. Vanessa Palmer and Christopher Saunders gave glowing accounts of supporting roles.

In rep to 18 June (020-7304 4000)

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