Be warned – after an evening of concentrated Frederick Ashton, you may well find yourself exhibiting the physical symptoms of ballet ecstasy. These include: inability to make small-talk for at least half an hour after the curtain drops; near-unconscious humming of certain phrases of Satie, Liszt or Strauss, and – most embarrassing on the Tube – arms that keep wanting to float up into an open fifth position, wrists and palms curving round in that expressive and unashamedly classical way characteristic of Ashton, the founding choreographer of The Royal Ballet and practically the sole genius of "English" choreography.
The first part of the evening was a trio of desserts – three differently flavoured ballet bites of thirteen, six and five minutes respectively. La Valse, set to Ravel, was a mousse with a tart garnish: frothy, exuberant, and yet not too sweet. Nineteen couples whirl with some desperation across a ballroom, streaks of black and grey among their diamanté and pastel ballgowns. The men in their black tights and shoes have the best moments – there is something deeply pleasing about the geometry of all those lean legs jumping, crossing and changing direction in mid-air.
"Meditation", a pas de deux from Thaïs, might have been an indulgent little dollop of something smooth and tangy, if Leanne Benjamin and Valerij Hristov had actually appeared to like each other. Benjamin, though cold, was dancing well, but Hristov was stony-faced and uncomfortable (to be fair, anyone would be in a 1970s chest-baring orange doublet).
Voices of Spring, on the other hand, was a shamelessly likeable take on extremely hummable Johann Strauss. Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell, two of The Royal Ballet's champion smilers, danced like principals in the making: her phrasing and his jumps might warrant special mention but they were so tight, and well-matched, that my encomium on perfect timing, technique and acting applies equally to both of them.
After the first interval, there was a distinct change of gear, into the long-limbed modernism of Monotones I and II, set to Satie's Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies respectively. Each is a hypnotic study in line: the first asks for spacious attitudes (like an arabesque with the raised leg bent) from its three dancers, and keeps them moving on bent supporting legs in a sequence of fondus which reads like a very slow grand allegro – hard work indeed, but gratifying to see pulled off well by Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech. The second, more of a classic adagio in its positions, requires exceptional control and flawless lines to look good, particularly as the dancers are left exposed by both theGymnopédies' thin orchestration and by unforgiving white all-in-ones. No wonder then, that it had to be given to three principals, Marianela Núñez, Ed Watson and Federico Bonelli, who delivered effortless serenity.
After all that serenity though, the third part of the programme saw the pure effusion of dramatic storytelling that, let's face it, most of the audience were excited about. Ashton's Marguerite and Armand is his half-hour telling of the Dame aux Camélias topos, perhaps best known as Verdi's La Traviata. Made for Fonteyn and Nureyev when their partnership was at its most intense, it was for many years danced only by them: its first restaging was as recent as 2000. Only the strongest dramatic ballerinas can hope to fill Fonteyn's shoes in a role that requires as much acting as dancing: chief among them, perhaps, is former Royal Ballet Principal Tamara Rojo, who is now Artistic Director of English National Ballet but back on her old stage for three nights in this run. The Armand to her Marguerite was another sometime habitué of the Opera House, the young Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin who resigned so suddenly in 2012.
Together, these two are ravishing. In Cecil Beaton's costumes, garnished with creamy camelias, and acting one of the most Romantic of all heroines, Rojo is mesmerising, her considerable physical capacities absolutely harnessed to the drama, so that the tremulous rise of one foot from demi to full pointe was as heart-stopping as her wildest leaps into Polunin's arms. Polunin is blessed with both looks and raw talent to a rare degree, and has the panache, the strength, the easy confidence of a young dancer at his physical peak; his facial acting was a little less nuanced than Rojo's, perhaps, but his dancing said more than enough (a couple of floatingly easy grands jetés he knocked out in the country scene would be grounds alone for Marguerite to be so desperately in love). Were they better than Fonteyn/Nureyev? Or the last time they danced these roles themselves? I can't answer – I wasn't there. But last night's performance certainly left me with an acute case of ballet ecstasy.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD