Four varied works on the Royal Ballet’s new programme give dancers and audiences a rewarding look at the past. Firebird is the biggest and oldest, created 1910 for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. Stravinsky’s rich score, Fokine’s expressive dances and vivid designs by Natalia Gontcharova colourfully evoke legends of a powerful magic bird. Leanne Benjamin dances the title role brilliantly with wonderful detail of arms and legs. However, Edward Watson and Genesia Rosato give sketchy accounts of the rural royals she saves from Alastair Marriott’s slavering magician.
The other ballets were made 1941-60 for George Balanchine’s New York companies. His Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux introduces a new star, Alexandra Ansanelli, transferring from NYCB to the Royal. Her swift, light exactness and convincing musicianship in this voluptuously virtuosic duet promise a fine future and Federico Bonelli makes an eager partner for her.
Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun provides an interesting contrast - a quietly dramatic duet of an encounter and half-stated flirtation in a ballet studio. Carlos Acosta brings the sleepy, stretchy man perfectly to life, but Sarah Lamb lacks projection as the girl.
Balanchine himself mounted his Ballet Imperial at Covent Garden in 1950 and (dare I say?) it was more strongly and commandingly danced then. Still, tackling its homage to ballet’s Russian past must benefit the new casts, especially if Philip Gammon can enrich his account of Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. Darcey Bussell is challenged by the lead role’s technical demands and phrasing, while Zenaida Yanowsky could do with more authority as the second ballerina. Rupert Pennefather does pretty well in the reticent male lead.
All the works have two or three casts so the programme’s balance may well change later.