Like any major company, the Royal Ballet expends prodigious amounts of cash in the pursuit of new repertoire. But as Monday's all-Ashton programme showed, there are gleaming nuggets still to be mined from its own archive. Over 40 years Frederick Ashton created a vast body of work for the Royal, producing not only some of the great ballets of the century but also the basis of the company's style: clean, elegant and profoundly lyrical. Maintaining this heritage ought to be a priority, and the ongoing "Ashton Celebration", begun last year, seems at last to be getting it right.
Monday's bill presented him in three distinct modes. Symphonic Variations is a lucid neo-classical sextet, all pattern and no plot. It was the first work Ashton made for the new Covent Garden company when it reopened after the war, yet its cool white tunics and lime-green backdrop give it a springtime purity that makes it seem newly hatched. If Ashton himself were around, I suspect he would have found these dancers, for all their virtuosity, a touch too effortful. Only Viviana Durante glitters composedly as the cool centre of the piece.
Ashton in narrative mode is seen in The Dream (1964), a 19th-century midsummer night's frolic that owes more to Mendelssohn than to Shakespeare. If the ballet has a flaw it is the fluttering of too many gauzy-winged fairies that sap the theatrical power of Oberon, a role Tetsuya Kumakawa does his best to invest with depth and majesty. As the company's springiest ballerino he is a natural Puck, but either he or the management has decided he must break free of cheeky, shoulder-shrugging parts and gain dramatic weight. But you watch his Oberon with the sneaking suspicion he is cramping his own style.
Most overdue and intriguing revival is Illuminations of 1950, a homage to Rimbaud - teenage rebel, Verlaine's lover and short-lived writer of phantasmagoric verse. The task of making dramatic sense of the opium-induced idiom was made easier for Ashton by Britten's swooning settings for solo tenor and orchestra. Cecil Beaton's designs fill the stage with ghostly characters from a masquerade - pale pierrots who represent the mad twilit world the poet (Jonathan Cope) must travel to find his destiny. I'm convinced Twyla Tharp modelled Mr Worldly Wise on this. Here Rimbaud must choose between Sacred Love (the pure and lovely Darcey Bussell) and Profane Love (Benazir Hussein), whose cat-on-heat movements stretch balletic vocabulary to the limits of carnality. Ashton was no prude. His rich and strange dream-ballet ends with a pistol-shot, a fountain of blood, and the wounded Rimbaud making a slow exit, as in life.
It is just as well Les Grands Ballets Canadiens have no Ashton ballet to mess around with. To judge by their current tour the only grand thing about them is their advertising budget. Cannily, they opened at Sadler's Wells with a piece by Mark Morris, which put bottoms on seats but could not persuade them all to stay put. In a typical Morris cock-snook at classical technique, tutu-ed dancers prance Bambi-like across the stage. On and off, on and off, with fixed smiles like overwound clockwork dolls: it should have been charming and funny, but despite stylish individual efforts, the ragged ensemble meant the joke fell flat. And the recorded Donizetti was dire, all the more so since they brought in the Royal Ballet Sinfonia for the last piece. Live music is not only a question of economics, but of quality.
Royal Ballet: ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), Wed, 1 & 4 May. Grands Ballets: Aberdeen Her Majesty's (01224 64112), Tues-Thurs.
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