The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London


24 Preludes, Alexei Ratmansky’s magnificent new work for The Royal Ballet, glows at the heart of an awkward triple bill. The new Ratmansky makes the evening a hit, though it’s flanked by a shaky revival of Balanchine’s Apollo and Christopher Wheeldon’s half-baked new Aeternum.

Ratmansky, a former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now resident choreographer with American Ballet Theatre, is one of the world’s most in-demand choreographers. His first work for The Royal Ballet is danced to the 24 preludes of Chopin’s opus 28, in a quirky 1960s orchestration by Jean Françaix. Eight dancers, all established personalities, flit through this music in a ballet that is highly distinctive, romantic and unpredictable.

The fluent lines and bright footwork suggest shifting relationships, as changeable as the skyscapes Neil Austin’s lighting paints on the backdrop. Colleen Atwood’s elegant, silvery dresses and tunics shimmer in the shifting light.

Ratmansky has a vivid response to his dancers’ personalities, showing off Zenaida Yanowsky’s grandeur or finding unexpected anger in Rupert Pennefather. The ballet is both classical and personal. Its implied dramas are powerful without being spelled out.

Edward Watson partners both Alina Cojocaru and Leanne Benjamin, who dart through bouncy little jumps or spring into his arms one by one; at last he carries them both off. Pennefather and Yanowsky storm on stage, breaking up a dance for the other couples: it might be a row at a dinner party, with everyone taking sides. It leaves Benjamin alone onstage, apparently desolate, until she scampers into a gleefully quick and happy solo.

Ratmansky uses classical techniques or puts a twist on them. Men normally do the lifting in ballet, but when McRae, a smaller dancer, joins the tall Pennefather and Yanowsky, he’s the one who gets skimmed through the air. 

There are many celebrated Chopin ballets; Ratmansky is taking on a tradition, and cheerfully finding his own place in it. The famous prelude from Les Sylphides becomes a grand trio, with Leanne Benjamin, Valeri Hristov and Steven McRae striking grand poses that face away from the audience, as if they were acknowledging some other public. 24 Preludes is a marvellous ballet, The Royal Ballet’s best new work in years.

Aeternum comes as a real letdown after it. Wheeldon marks the centenary of Benjamin Britten by moping over the composer’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Jean-Marc Puissant’s monumental set, a criss-cross of wooden ribs, is lifted and shifted throughout the work. Adam Silverman’s lighting blacks out at dramatic moments, allowing the dancers to shuffle into new tableaux.

Wheeldon tugs and pulls his dancers into extreme poses, leaving them strangely anonymous. Even Marianela Nuñez can’t make much impact. The evening opened with a sluggish Apollo, led by Carlos Acosta.

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