The Royal Ballet’s season finale is a truly mixed programme: a trio of short ballets – The Dream, Connectome and The Concert – that showcases the sheer variety of the company’s talents and unites representatives of its past and future in one evening.
It begins with The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s cleverly condensed version of Shakespeare’s play. The opening notes of Mendelssohn’s gorgeous score send goosebumps prickling up my arms, and the curtain rises to reveal a moonlit woodland inhabited with hordes of glittering fairies. Mortal lovers soon enter the enchanted realm, crisscrossing the stage as they pursue each other, unwittingly interacting with the wood’s magic inhabitants and providing the ballet’s comedy. Lysander is reluctantly sent to sleep on a different patch of ground to his beloved, Helena and Hermia get in a cat fight and even in their story’s resolution to the famous ‘Wedding March’ the pairs briefly end up the wrong way round. Some people might point to Bottom as the primary comic relief, but I feel more impressed by a male dancer learning to move on pointe than I do amused by him scratching his ass (sorry) on a tree trunk.
The stars of Frederick Ashton’s version of this story are Titania and Oberon, the fairy king and queen, danced by Laura Morera and Steven McRae. This is Morera’s debut in the role and while her sharp, staccato style of movement suits Titania’s arguments with Oberon over the changeling boy and her flirtation with both him and Bottom, in the soothing, romantic Nocturne pas de deux it jarred.
Steven McRae is a stellar Oberon, mastering the sequences of fleeting leaps and turns and spinning so fast he becomes a green blur. He acts a menacing fairy king too, lurking in the shadows and glaring schemingly into the audience, undeterred by an early costume malfunction. Plus, he looks damn good in all that eyeliner. On what was my second viewing of this ballet, I found myself impressed by the quality of the acting, and enchanted by Ashton’s supremely musical choreography.
From classical past to bright future… literally. Connectome, Alastair Marriott’s new offering for this season, could be accused of being a glorified light show. White poles that fill the stage at the start like prison bars flicker under projected light, camouflaging the dancers. And the constantly moving patterns of light on the backdrop are slightly distracting, particularly when they form a terrifying singing face, but it’s hard to be distracted from Natalia Osipova for long. Her power and athleticism – ok, her legs – as she jetes, kicks and strikes each pose are mesmerising, while Edward Watson and Steven McRae (showing no signs of tiredness) support her. McRae’s solo is impressive, particularly when he slides across the stage almost in splits, and finishes with him being held aloft by the supporting dancers before folding neatly into their ranks. As Osipova performs the concluding solo, the moving lights behind her gradually fade, leaving her alone onstage in a single spot. I admit to preferring more traditional narrative ballets, but Connectome kept me engaged with its varied tempo and performer combinations, and the final moments left me moved. Though perhaps not as much as the rest of the audience, who applauded louder for this work than either of the others.
Jerome Robbins’ comedy ballet The Concert is the programme’s final piece. Solo pianist Robert Clark plays Chopin pieces live onstage, as concert-goers gather with their folding chairs to watch – and inevitably, irritate each other by talking, swapping seats and rustling sweet wrappers. (I had to laugh at the accuracy of the portrayal – I was plagued all night by people having conversations behind me. So rude.) Sarah Lamb, who I had previously only seen as a serene Aurora, is a comic revelation in the role of The Ballerina, wiggling and flirting with The Husband and hamming up her duet with The Shy Boy. The former sneaking up on his wife like a cartoon, knife in hand, is also extremely funny but the group of doll ballerinas made me laugh the most. Initially, they’re carried across the stage like mannequins, frozen in various poses, and once set in motion, perform a hilariously error-strewn and self-conscious routine. Although the sketches aren’t really connected – and don’t all take place at a concert – recognisable characters recur and the whole thing has such a kitschy, quaint charm about it that you can’t help but smile.
Just like I did when I first saw the view from my seat… It’s not every day I get to sit in the Stalls Circle.