Royal Ballet's 75th Anniversary Programme, Royal Opera House, London

The end of an oxymoron
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The Independent Culture

Pluck and spirit - those were the qualities that defined the Royal Ballet (then the Vic-Wells Ballet) when it straggled into life in 1931. And vision, of course. How could anyone have known what that motley group of barely trained young people with their plump arms and baggy tights would one day be capable of? There was no template for British ballet. No one had used those two words together before. So the fact that, 75 years on, that company's distinct British take on classical dance is globally recognised and admired is an achievement to toast in style.

But how to present three-quarters of a century in three hours? That was the task of this gala-style mixed bill, and the result - which went on so long that the final curtain sent patrons sprinting for last trains like scatter-shot - succeeded only in parts.

The most brilliant came first, with a revival of Ninette de Valois's 1935 ballet, The Rake's Progress, a work so concentrated, graphic and spikily alert to the grotesque realities of Hogarth's world that its 40 minutes seemed too short. Hogarth's morality tale has a simple outline, and the ballet boils it down further still into pungent scenes of gambling den, brothel and jail, and London streets where Rex Whistler's backdrops have you almost smelling the jellied eels.

Never let it be said that the Royal Ballet's founder was prim. There are jokes in this ballet to make a navvy blush, not least a lascivious little cameo for a whip-wielding jockey, and an inspired tart's technique for reviving a collapsed drunk. Perfect casting helped, with Johan Kobborg (below) an egregious roué that we almost pitied, and Laura Morera a most tender Betrayed Girl.

The central section of the evening was given over to ballet snippets arranged by decade, and here some of the choices misfired. The madwoman-in-a-nightie solo from Ashton's Dante Sonata was simply mystifying in its brevity. The slow pas de deux from Ashton's Rhapsody, without its fast and airy build-up, collapsed like wet meringue. I stifled yawns throughout Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle's duet from MacMillan's Winter Dreams. Yet Viacheslav Samodurov electrified with Satan's furious solo from Job (de Valois again), and Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta lifted the roof with their balcony passion as Romeo and Juliet - a high point of the early Sixties, and still as good as the pas de deux gets.

I could have gone home happy at this point, but there was more. On paper it must have seemed a great idea to field the three lost movements of Frederick Ashton's 1953 Homage to the Queen to three current choreographers. In practice, the venture was doomed by Malcolm Arnold's score, a queasy mix of heraldic pomp and Light Programme orchestral jazz that might have sounded racy at the time of the Coronation but now begs to be buried in a lead box at the bottom of the sea. Tutu-addicts may find something to like in the extravagantly conceived Earth, Water and Fire sections by Messrs Bintley, Corder and Wheeldon (the last being the liveliest), and in Ashton's bow-the-knee apotheosis. Republicans should stay away.

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