Hail and farewell: the Royal Ballet ends its season with gorgeous triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton, including superb debuts and goodbye to a much-loved ballerina. Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé were entrancing in The Dream, while Zenaida Yanowsky brought thrilling dramatic intelligence to Marguerite and Armand.
It’s a programme that shows Ashton’s range, from storytelling to the serene loveliness of his plotless classic Symphonic Variations. As the company’s founder choreographer, Ashton set the Royal Ballet’s style: lyrical, musical and dramatic. After a period of neglect, the company is now back in touch with its roots. On opening night, Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov led an assured revival of Symphonic Variations, floating through the spacious, intricate steps. Saturday’s matinee, with Lauren Cuthbertson and Reece Clark, got even deeper into the style. In a very strong cast, the young Joseph Sissens made a stylish debut.
The Dream is Ashton’s delightful take on Shakespeare and Mendelssohn, a very Victorian forest peopled with fairies in tulle and quarrelling lovers. As the fairy queen Titania, Hayward dances with luscious delicacy, both regal and sensuous. She’s matched by Sambé, dancing with command and mercurial speed. Throughout, both are alert to dramatic and musical nuances: it’s a lovely partnership. On opening night, Akane Takada was a crisp Titania, but lacked chemistry with Steven McRae’s Oberon. It’s a vivid revival, with witty dancing and characterisation from fairies, lovers and mechanicals.
Marguerite and Armand is a much weaker ballet. Created to show off the megawatt partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, it’s a retelling of La Dame aux Camélias, all melodrama and Cecil Beaton frocks. It works as a vehicle, and this revival has some big-name casting, with Marguerite danced by Yanowsky, the returning Alessandra Ferri and Natalia Osipova (who will perform it with the Mariinsky’s Vladimir Shklyarov, after erratic star Sergei Polunin pulled out).
Saying farewell to the Royal Ballet after 23 years, Yanowsky shows her quality as an actress, a dancer and a star. There’s a grand sweep to her movement, while her alert stage presence makes tiny moments count. When she’s forced to give up her lover, Roberto Bolle’s Armand, she holds still for a vulnerable second, trying to resist the inevitable. In her death scene, she’s ardent and feverish, clinging on to life. Bolle less at home in the grand gestures, but makes a sure, devoted partner. It’s a very moving goodbye.
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