“Make more, make it like popcorn!” George Balanchine told Jerome Robbins after watching 25 minutes of choreography, miming the addictive act of popping popcorn into his mouth. Robbins obliged, expanding Dances at a Gathering to an hour, enough to satisfy most balletomanes. At times, Dances can seem a little too long but there was something about this performance by The Royal Ballet – closing a triple bill after two Balanchine classics – that really touched the heart and made the hour fly past.

The Royal Ballet in Dances at a Gathering
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Perhaps that was down to the work’s association with memory and our own long absence from theatres. Sending Ballet Review a telegram-like message shortly after the 1969 premiere, all in capital letters, Robbins protested that “THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES… THERE ARE NO PLOTS AND NO ROLES”. Yet in the first number, Alexander Campbell’s Brown Boy (the ten dancers are identified by the pastel colours of their costumes) seems to have his memory jogged, his dancing prompted by something from his past. Laura Morera (Green Girl) appears for a solo halfway through the ballet, her fragmented movements as if recalling episodes – and relationships – from the past. 

In the series of dances, all set to Chopin’s piano music (mostly waltzes and mazurkas, competently played), there’s little that is virtuosic, few dizzying lifts. There’s fluidity between the solos, duets and group numbers. Partnering shifts. Sometimes the numbers are light-hearted, such as a flirtatious duet between Meaghan Grace Hinkis (Apricot) and Luca Acri (Brick), a competitive male duet with Campbell and Federico Bonelli (Purple) sparring with Cossack crossed arms and heel slaps, or Morera being blown off by three potential suitors. Campbell was a dynamo, fizzing around the stage in his athletic solo variation. 

Marianela Núñez and Alexander Campbell in Dances at a Gathering
© ROH | Bill Cooper

But it’s the wistful numbers that struck home. The trio between Marianela Núñez (Pink), a ribbon in her hair, Francesca Hayward (Mauve) and Fumi Kaneko (Blue) has the nostalgic quality of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. They are briefly interrupted when William Bracewell (Green) appears, partnering Núñez in a shy duet before he evaporates and the women tenderly reunite. No more than six dancers appear on stage at any one time until the finale when Campbell kneels and touches the stage and all ten dancers stare out into the auditorium, almost motionless, as if connecting with the audience to say “the storm has passed, we’re all back where we belong”. 

That sense of rebirth echoed the evening’s opening work where Leto gives birth to Apollo, leader of the Muses. Apollon musagète (later renamed Apollo) was the first collaboration between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky and was an apt choice by The Royal Ballet to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. It’s a perfect example of Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase, which is perfectly matched by the purity and clarity of Balanchine’s choreography. Vadim Muntagirov was a sleek, angular Apollo, composed rather than untamed at the beginning, when he struck his rock guitarist poses on his lute (Vasko Vassilev’s violin solos here were excellent, as was the playing of the ROH strings under Koen Kessels). Muntagirov soared in his later solo variation.

Yasmine Naghdi, Vadim Muntagirov, Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Mayara Magri in Apollo
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

His trio of Muses, making their entrance high-kicking in canon, worked wonderfully together. Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Calliope) failed to impress Apollo with her poetry, scribbled on the palm of her hand. Mayara Magri (Polyhymnia), finger to her lips as the Muse of Mime, looked suitably shocked when she blurted out a word. But it was Yasmine Naghdi’s Terpsichore (Muse of Dance) who touched Apollo most, leading to a glorious pas de deux, which included a dip in the Aegean Sea, Naghdi sailing effortlessly on Muntagirov’s back. When Apollo hears Zeus calling to him, the Muses do not want to let him go, their interlocked arms leading to an iconic pose where outstretched legs resemble the rays of the sun before Apollo ascends the staircase towards Mount Parnassus.

Natalia Osipova in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

In an evening high on understatement (streamed next week), the fireworks came from Natalia Osipova and Reece Clarke in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Osipova exuded nonchalant self-confidence and cheek, beaming her way through her stunning solo variation, while Clarke, sleeves billowing, was her debonair cavalier. After the Apollonian austerity of the opening work, it was good to enjoy a little glamour, topped by a thrilling pair of fish dives to have the audience cheering behind their face masks.