The choice of material to showcase the talents of the Royal Ballet School’s upper and lower schools in the annual performance is crucial to offer a clear platform for students. This year the selections were exemplary and prepared graduates for the challenging variety of choreographic styles they will have to address in their future careers. It must also have been enormous fun for the stars of tomorrow to dance great work today.
The opening piece, Checkmate, was chosen in honour of the Royal Ballet’s founder, Ninette de Valois, who choreographed it. It was delivered with colour and verve but turned out to be the most difficult choice. Arthur Bliss’ score is a level playing field, allowing for little rise and fall or acceleration and deceleration of movement. And the opening steps are tricky, which meant that many of them were simply ignored.
However, I enjoyed the prancing pawns in their red costumes, and Grete Borud Nybakken’s extended villainy as the Black Queen suggests she would be a shoo-in for any dark character, from Carabosse to the Snow Queen, when she begins her contract with the Norwegian Ballet. Quietly standing out, however, was Zoe Roberts’ Red Queen, whose presence and deportment were notable.
Liam Scarlett’s Danse Bohemienne from La Jolie Fille de Perth was a fresh and invigorating ensemble that stretched the dancers and provided an intriguing contrast to the pas de trois of Fredrick Ashton’s Monotones II. Set to Erik Satie’s familiar Trois Gymnopedies, Antonia McAuley, Robin Kent and Michael Snoey Kiewit wound in and out of each other in a performance of flexible intimacy that was extremely pleasing in its sinewy sensuality and balance-testing poise.
Excepts from Kenneth MacMillan’s The Four Seasons provided another wonderful ensemble opportunity, with the girls jiggling merrily in a group en pointe as, one by one, an individual breaks away to address the boys waiting as if at an upmarket disco. The final line of the girls as they depart in a whirling, semi-classical conga was brilliant.
John Neumeier’s Spring and Fall was a lean and clever piece for a quartet of dancers, with Claudia Dean having fun being passed between three men, among whom the statuesque Tomas Mock was outstanding. Both of these dancers have contracts with the Royal Ballet, and it is easy to see why.
David Bintley’s charming Edwardian riverside pastiche, En Bateau, which combines the spirit of Jerome K Jerome with Ashton’s Les Patineurs, was a bucolic joy. As well as dainty steps, Fiona McGee from the lower school revealed acting skills well beyond her years.
The best, however, was reserved for the end. John Cranko’s Opus 1, set to Anton Webern’s wonderful score, was a revelation. Made in 1965, this was a fierce and beautiful piece, opening with a kind of organic mass of bodies - a flower of flesh - upon which Greig Matthew was held aloft by outstretched hands and body-surfed in slow motion.
The design and human architecture of the ballet demands extraordinary poise and a collective discipline that was beautifully realised, no doubt due to Stuttgart choreologist Georgette Tsinguirides, who was brought over to supervise the staging and advise on Cranko’s style. The result went beyond ballet into the realm of shape-shifting physical theatre. And the final sequence in which the female dancers, held aloft by their partners, collapsed backwards in an endless relay of movement was staggering.
With more than 30 graduates already contracted to various ballet companies, it seems that the school delivers on its boast of being the best vocational ballet school in the world. This showcase provided ample evidence of it.
Expert choices (Bruce Marriott, www.ballet.co.uk): Tomas Mock, Grete Borud Nybakken