When was the last time you heard gasps of astonishment in an Ashton ballet? Sir Frederick’s choreography is usually the epitome of Royal Ballet nobility and understated elegance, yet when Marcelino Sambé exploded across the stage with his revoltades in the 22nd variation of Rhapsody, you could hear sharp intakes of breath around the auditorium. The principal male role was created on Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had hoped to learn British ballet style and was a little disappointed in the Russian flashiness, confessing he “was trying to escape all those steps”. Sambé left a trail of scorch marks across the stage. 

Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

In many ways, the only “typical” Ashton work in The Royal Ballet’s triple bill dedicated to its former director was the central pillar, A Month in the Country, a poignant setting of Turgenev to music by Chopin. Framing it were his early, modernist Scènes de ballet (1948), its angular geometries matching Stravinsky’s chic score, and the virtuosic Rhapsody (1980), set to Rachmaninov’s equally virtuosic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (a busy day for the company’s pianists). 

Watching the matinee and evening performances on opening day certainly brought out contrasting approaches to Ashton’s choreography. Where Sambé and Francesca Hayward were effervescent and exciting, Steven McRae and Anna Rose O’Sullivan emphasised the work’s lyrical qualities more, particularly the tender 18th variation. Despite plenty of surface sparkle, Hayward struggled to keep up with the fast footwork, whereas O’Sullivan’s was super neat. Sambé makes his mark on the stage with his muscular energy; McRae commands it more quietly these days, but his authority is still magnetic. Robert Clark played Rachmaninov’s fiendish piano part, with its frequent Dies irae references, with crystalline clarity. 

Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in Scènes de ballet
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Of all the classics, Ashton adored The Sleeping Beauty. Both Rhapsody and Scènes de ballet pay homage to that ballet’s Rose Adagio, the principal female dancer presented by multiple male dancers. Scènes traces its geometric patterns with icy classicism and precision. Ashton declared that the work would make sense viewed from any angle – I would love to see an aerial shot – and it is a feast for the eyes, the women in dapper tutus, diamond chokers and mini-matador headdresses, the prima ballerina in yellow and black. Sarah Lamb, poised and pristine, was exquisite here, eyes flashing, while Vadim Muntagirov was her chivalrous partner, barely a single step audible. In the evening, Yasmine Naghdi was self-assured, Reece Clarke robust. The female corps lacked a little snap, but the quartet of male dancers – especially  in the evening performance – shone. Emmanuel Plasson conducted Stravinsky’s tricksy score with precision. 

Marianela Núñez and Matthew Ball in A Month in the Country
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

A Month in the Country was the bittersweet centrepiece. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play, the focus is on Natalia Petrovna, suffocated in a loveless marriage and bored in their country estate, who falls for Beliaev, a handsome young tutor employed for her children. Kate Shipway was the excellent pianist in the three Chopin concertante works, notably the playful Variations in B flat major on “La ci darem la mano”

Gary Avis, Marianela Núñez and Christopher Saunders in A Month in the Country
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

In the evening performance Laura Morera, a seasoned Ashtonian dancer, captured every nuance of Natalia Petrovna’s wistfulness, tenderly partnered by the ever-youthful Muntagirov. Mica Bradbury was sparky as Katia, the maid who flirts with Belyaev and pops berries into his mouth. But it was the matinee cast which gave the more moving performance, led by Marianela Núñez as a lip-quiveringly emotional Natalia Petrovna, quick to anger – she gave O’Sullivan’s Vera a real slap when she discovered her ward flirting with Matthew Ball’s youthful Beliaev – but also seeped in resignation when her young admirer departs. Every turn of the head was loaded with meaning. All the characters came alive – Luca Acri’s playful Kolia, Gary Avis’ devoted spaniel of a Rakitin – and the timing was absolute perfection, especially the comic scene where Natalia’s bluff husband, Yslaev (Christopher Saunders), has lost his keys and all the characters bump into each other in the search for them. Each pas de deux was delicious, Núñez simply melting in hold. The audience melted too.