The menacing presence of Covid threatened the first run of this third full programme at the hurried end of an otherwise redundant season for The Royal Ballet. At a day’s notice, several dancers were forced into self-isolation, necessitating last minute alterations to enable the intended ballets to go ahead. That the programme appeared unaffected by this late drama is a great credit to the determination and inspiration of all concerned.

Mariko Sasaki and Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød in Anemoi
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

The world premiere of Valentino Zucchetti’s Anemoi was most vulnerable since the choreographer lost a key performer, which changed the shape of his ballet altogether, requiring dancers to learn the half-hour work in an afternoon. None but an insider knows what it would have looked like if performed 24 hours’ earlier, but this late adaptation was quite beautifully conceived and performed.

Zucchetti created a joyous brief ballet entitled Scherzo, last autumn, and Anemoi is a further development of that choreography, inspired by ideas from Greek mythology where Anemoi gods ruled over the winds. It is a plotless, elegant, airy ballet with waves of charming classical dance visually interpreting a bespoke arrangement of Rachmaninov's music, bringing together the second movements of his first two symphonies and an orchestrated version of his six-handed piano Romance. To my knowledge this rich tapestry of luscious music is mostly new to choreographic use and it provides both sentimental, swirling love themes (for two pas de deux) and ominous, stormy interludes, which perfectly represented the Anemoi’s mischief. Zucchetti’s sophisticated, graceful choreography was captivatingly performed by a group of fifteen young dancers, showcasing the strength that the company has at every level. It was touchingly dedicated to the memory of Zucchetti’s late friend and mentor, Liam Scarlett.    

The middle part of the programme was a collection of five duets of diverse styles laid end-to-end like a bracelet of assorted gemstones, opening with Wayne McGregor’s delightful Morgen, choreographed to Strauss’ eponymous song (performed by Sarah-Jane Lewis, accompanied by Vasko Vassilev on violin). It was made for the first of the live streams from the house last summer, so this was its premiere before a live audience. Opening with Francesca Hayward’s confident voiceover of the opening words of John Henry Mackay’s love poem, it developed into an absorbing duet, characterised by Cesar Corrales’ rippling, sinuous solo movement and the passionate embrace of his emotional partnering with Hayward.

Ryoichi Hirano and Laura Morera in Winter Dreams
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

Laura Morera and Ryoichi Hirano kept up the passion with sensitivity and charm in the Farewell duet from Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, with Robert Clark as their onstage pianist.  Another sensational farewell came in Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux with Reece Clarke. The audience’s rapt attention would have been disturbed by the proverbial pin dropping. This was as fine an interpretation of the classic slow duet, choreographed to Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Spiegel im Spiegel, as one is ever likely to see. Stix-Brunell has danced with The Royal Ballet for more than a decade and, still only 28, she leaves to pursue an academic career at Stanford University. How London audiences will miss this gifted young woman!

Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Reece Clarke in After the Rain
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

The UK premiere of Mats Ek’s woman with water, also made in 2020, brought a humorous piece that begins as a solo for Mayara Magri to perform in, on, under and around a specially designed table, developing into an quirky duet with Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød involving a carafe and glass of water. It requires deft circus-like timing and ended with Braendsrød mopping the floor and sweeping the comatose Magri into the wings! Classical ballet was restored with Frederick Ashton’s much-loved Voices of Spring duet, performed joyously by Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan. 

Anna Rose O'Sullivan in Voices of Spring
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

The final act of The Sleeping Beauty marked the 75th anniversary of its performance to reopen the Royal Opera House after the war, since when it has remained the company’s signature work. The absence of self-isolating dancers necessitated reduced polonaise and mazurka dances but others seized the opportunity to perform cherished roles with aplomb, notably in the enigmatic performances of Meaghan Grace Hinkis and James Hay in the Bluebird pas de deux, Sae Maeda as Red Riding Hood and Ashley Dean as the slinky White Cat. Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov performed the grand pas de deux with sublime majesty, transforming choreography into a living work of art. Núñez possesses a shimmering, celestial radiance and her partner is a Prince in his prime.

It is a salutary thought that performing as Catalabutte brought to an end a drought of 471 days since Bennet Gartside had last appeared before a live audience. Thank goodness that this awful run for him – and so many other wonderful dancers – is finally ended; and congratulations to the company for rallying so excellently to throw off the threat of Covid bursting their bubble and, with a snip here and there, they saved the day with their own creative vaccine. Bravo! 

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