This Royal Ballet programme, staged to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II, makes an exhilarating tribute, and shows the company on top form in two very different works. The first offering, to Verdi’s dance sequence in his opera Don Carlos, is an eye-watering collection of virtuoso variations, a plotless barrage of intricate and technical wizardry that sweeps the stage with grace and elegance. The other, one of the most famous of the Romantic era ballets, is set in the Scottish Highlands and its scenario interweaves joyful tartan-kilted village folk with the mysterious ethereality of tarlatan-clad fairies.
Ballo della Regina bubbles with bravura, yet is fiendishly challenging for the leading ballerina to dance. She needs attack, musicality and unrelenting virtuosity for this short – 18-minute – work created in 1978 by the Georgian-born George Balanchine for New York City Ballet. His muse was Merrill Ashley, and last season she staged the work for The Royal Ballet, returning to London this past month to polish and refine it. For the opening performance, she chose Marianela Nuñez, a ballerina of exquisite taste, who lights up the stage with her sparkle and vitality. She was oh-so-fast as she sped across the stage, and buoyant and expansive in her airborne movements, tackling Balanchine’s complicated steps – springing from pointe, without the usual preparatory plié; landing from big jumps on pointe – all with the sunniest of smiles.
She was partnered by the tall and elegant Nehemiah Kish, dressed in white tights and shirt with flowing sleeves. His smiling face (rather than his usual serious demeanour) brought life into his dancing as he sailed skywards with his bravura leaps. The principal duo was well supported by a corps of twelve female dancers and four soloists who individually demonstrated joyous and flowing disciplined dancing.
La Sylphide is one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets and epitomizes the Romantic era. Originally choreographed by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie in 1832, it was later adapted by the great Danish choreographer August Bournonville in 1836. The version now in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire is a staging by Johan Kobborg, the renowned Danish dancer and choreographer, now principal at The Royal Ballet. La Sylphide tells the tale of James, a young farmer, who on the day of his wedding, is completely bewitched by a lovely young Sylph who suddenly appears in the cottage, entreating him to leave his bride to be and follow her. He does, but not before he has threatened an old crone – Madge – for telling fortunes to the guests. She curses him and seeks revenge. In the woods, she concocts a beautiful magic veil in her cauldron and tells James to wrap it around the Sylph. The Sylph is thrilled with the gift, but when James binds her arms in it, she feels entrapped, her wings fall off, and she dies. Utterly bereft, he sinks to the ground as the Sylph is carried up to the heavens.
It’s an engaging ballet, brimming with showy Bournonville technique with its graceful épaulement, small clean beats, and bouncy jumps all ending in perfect fifth position. Taking the role of James, Steven McRae was evidently born to dance Bournonville. Always a strong and exciting technician, in this ballet his feet fairly twinkled in all the speedy footwork and batterie, while his kilt swirled as he made high double turns to land perfectly. He was convincing too in his acting, in his complete fascination of the supernatural being and his desire to catch her. And he was touching in the final moments of the ballet when he realized all that he had lost – Effie has gone off to marry his friend Gurn – in his desire to possess the impossible. It was an excellent performance from him.
And there was Alina Cojocaru – a Sylph to die for. She is the quintessential Sylphide. Tiny, fragile-looking, playful and cheeky-faced, she is compelling viewing. Light as thistle-down with beautiful limbs, she draws fine lines in her dancing, always graceful and ethereal – she seems to float on air.
Other dancers deserving of mention are Emma Maguire who made a vivacious Effie; Kristen McNally who enacted her mime splendidly, even though she was a rather pretty Madge despite the grime and matted hair; Valentino Zucchetti, who as Gurn matched McRae with neat footwork and charisma, and Claire Calvert, who was a light and lovely First Sylph in the woodland glade scene. There was great support from the whole company and the evening passed all too quickly.
Choreography by August Bournonville / Johan Kobborg (revisions)
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Ballo Della Regina © Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Alina Cojocaru in La Sylphide © Johan Persson
Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in Ballo Della Regina © Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH