Royal Ballet's Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London


The Royal Ballet's outgoing director leaves a surprisingly short – and white – company

A birthday, a wedding, a holiday: these are the sunny-seeming components of the final mixed bill devised by Monica Mason for the Royal Ballet before she retires. Yet in two of the three works celebration is the last thing on anybody's mind. The holiday brings about family meltdown. The wedding is a terrifying ordeal.

The evening opens, though, with the glittering decorum of Frederick Ashton's Birthday Offering, his plotless homage to the company on its 25th, just two years before Mason joined as a young dancer in 1958. Created with seven ballerina roles in order to show off the abundance of star talent at the time, it might have served the same purpose today but for a swathe of injuries that kept some current favourites out of the line-up. Nonetheless, the cast underlines the choices Mason has made in the course of her directorship, and not just that she has favoured foreign products over home-grown and small girls over tall. (If you want to see Sylvie Guillem in pointe shoes these days, you'll have to go to China).

More controversially, Mason has kept the female cohort of the company noticeably white. Granted, she has recognised a prize asset in Carlos Acosta and hired one or two excellent black men, but she has stubbornly refused – for reasons undeclared – to offer contracts to dark-skinned women as they come up through the Royal Ballet School. That must change if ballet is to hold its own against other art forms.

Such issues didn't impinge in the 1950s. Ashton's concern in Birthday Offering was to raise a toast to female glamour, and this grand parade does that still, even if the frogged tutus strike the modern eye as fusty, and the tiaras with their feather tufts not just fussy but slightly mad, as if each girl were balancing a cake, complete with candles, on her head in some old-school deportment exercise.

What makes this revival memorable is Tamara Rojo in the role made for Margot Fonteyn. It's one thing to look radiant when being wafted about as if by a light breeze (thanks, Federico Bonelli). It's quite another to retain that composure while bourréeing backwards and bent double as if reaching to cut one's toenails. But if this was a challenge for La Rojo you wouldn't know it. She will be sorely missed when she too leaves the company later this month to become artistic director of English National ballet.

A Month in the Country, a contraction of Turgenev's play, falls into the category of Ashton narratives that would have you believe the music was written to fit the drama, not the other way round. The score is a patchwork of Chopin; the story turns on that familiar Russian scenario, the well-off, well-ordered family rocked by unfulfillable desires. Sadly, it has seen better readings. Zenaida Yanowsky is too reactive, too flappy, as Natalia Petrovna, the wife who so foolishly sets her cap at the children's dashing young tutor. Sylvie Guillem did less to greater effect.

And so finally to Les Noces, Bronislava Nijinska's stark, verging on violent take on a Russian peasant wedding, still startling in its modernism 90 years on. Here the dancers have ferocious authority, stamping through Stravinsky's cross-rhythms with ritual force, becoming an unstoppable tide of staggered lines, wedges and phalanxes, a formidable community.

Critic's Choice

Bringing together visual art, music, poetry, and a host of Royal Ballet principals, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is the company’s contribution to the 2012 festival, inspired by the painter’s masterpieces. Wayne McGregor, Kim Brandstrup and Christopher Wheeldon are among the choreographers; music is by Nico Muhly, Mark-Anthony Turnage and others. At the Royal Opera House from Sat; free outdoor screenings around the UK on 16 Jul.

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