Royal Ballet Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London

Nadine Meisner
Monday 20 January 2003 01:00

The townhouse may have been vacated and the belongings packed, but the traces of a ballet director continue long after his or her departure. Thus the latest Royal Ballet triple bill bears the signature of Ross Stretton, the previous director; the orchestra continues with Charles Barker, who has elicited more condemnation than any other conductor in recent memory; and at least one ballet is going to raise the hackles of critics.

That distinction falls to the Royal Ballet premiere of Jiri Kylian's Sinfonietta. This is a guaranteed target for being not only the so-called Eurotrash that Stretton was actually appointed to introduce, to breathe new life into the repertoire, but also a Kylian sample already so familiar (it was created in 1978) that it runs close to being a cliché. And yet it raised the loudest Covent Garden cheers, a natural reaction to the undeniable exhilaration that comes from Janacek's declamatory trumpet fanfare and the swell and surge of the movement. Yes, you could accuse Kylian of surface flamboyance – those hectic entrances, those broad and beautiful, but bombastic outlines. Yes, the vocabulary is repetitive and the flaring jeté jumps have become a hackneyed Kylian hallmark, as have the women's swirling skirts and rush of small running steps. But Walter Nobbe's sweeping vista of sky and fields is a breathtaking reminder that this is a celebration of Kylian's Czech homeland; while the Royal Ballet cast plunge into the rushing dynamic with big hearts.

By contrast, Frederick Ashton's Scènes de ballet is a dense compression of steps, yet it is presented with a near-transparent geometric lucidity. Johan Kobborg was ideally cast for the crisp footwork of his roles, but Alina Cojocaru's presence was too diminutive to make much impact. The various ensemble blocks of men and women have been coached into an impressive unity, their contrapuntal groupings like the facets of a prism. I know it's sacrilege, but Scénes de ballet is my least favourite Ashton ballet: its neo-classical coldness persuades me that I'm not watching real people; its willed strangeness seems more quirky than convincing. At its best, it evokes the surrealism of a De Chirico or Paul Delvaux.

Winter Dreams is not Kenneth MacMillan at his best either. The Chekhovian narrative (in Three Sisters mode) is sketched with brilliant skill through a series of cameos, even if it takes a while to work out the different identities and relationships. But why does the whole thing look so thin, so skimpy? This is a chamber ballet lost on the opera house's big stage. It also suffers from too many recycled MacMillan formulae, like the drunken carousing and the tipsy comic turn for Dr Chebutykin (Christopher Saunders) with a chair. The big farewell pas de deux, which caused such a stir when it was first created for Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell, now looks short on inspiration, even with Bussell (partnered by Inaki Urlezaga) in the role again. But the ballet's final gently resigned mood of making the best of what is there, is genuinely moving and it's good to find Anthony Dowell treading the boards again.

To 28 January (020-7304 4000)

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