The Royal Ballet's Ashton programme is a rare delight. And the mix of pieces shows just how versatile that know-it-when-you-see-it Ashton style is; turning from perfect classical brilliance, to expression and modernism, and then again to emotive storytelling.

Sarah Lamb and Steven Mcrae in <i>Scènes de Ballet</i> © Tristram Kenton
Sarah Lamb and Steven Mcrae in Scènes de Ballet
© Tristram Kenton
The evening begins with Scènes de Ballet, an abstract piece that pays homage to the conventions of 19th century ballet while drenching them in the unmistakeable lyricism of the ballet’s creator. Swarming figures with pixellated bodices and perfect arabesque lines fill the stage before a stop and pose, as Ashton shows us that stillness is as powerful as movement. Sarah Lamb presented us with a perfect image of what a ballerina truly is, conveying the feminine ideal that pervades this work. Steven McRae was a strong presence, performing these slow and eloquent ports de bras that begin the piece as if to say ‘I know, I'm moving my arms in this incredibly simply way and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?’

Next on the bill was Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan – the key words in this title are ‘in the manner of’. As no footage of Isadora dancing exists – apart from a twenty second clip available to the interested on YouTube – we rely on impressions and testimony from those who saw her to emulate how she would have danced. What a task for a dancer, to perform in the manner of one of the most charismatic dancers of the 20th century! You might as well ask a musician to reconstruct a guitar solo in the manner of Jimi Hendrix through editorials in Rolling Stone magazine and expect to hear his unique tone. Helen Crawford rose to the challenge admirably well throughout the sections, catching the mood of the music and committing to full use of the space.

Helen Crawford in <i>Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan</i> © Tristram Kenton
Helen Crawford in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
© Tristram Kenton
Still, it requires a suspension of disbelief to see a highly trained ballet dancer dancing in the manner of someone who called ballet a ‘school of affected grace and toe walking’. Isadora influenced ballet, but ballet did not influence Isadora. If this is the closest we can come to the ephemeral art of a pioneer, then I’ll take it.

Symphonic Variations, the middle section of the programme, widely considered to be the epitome of the Ashton style, is not often seen. Many consider this a huge shame, myself included, as it is modern, historic and timeless, and a work I could watch over and over again. Marianela Nuñez sparkles in the Fonteyn role, soaring through the intricate footwork and flanked by the bright and poised Yasmine Naghdi and Yuhui Choe. Again, Ashton uses stillness to great effect, the dancers pausing to allow other combinations of men and women to dance, and yet somehow their motionless becomes the dance itself. Writing about this piece is like trying to play music about gardening; it exists on a plane where only dance lives. See it if you can.

The evening closes with Ashton’s late work, A Month in the Country, its elaborate set settling us in an unfamiliar time and place. At first, it was hard to see why everyone was so excited about Rupert Pennefather’s Beliaev, his tense entrance and the way he nonchalantly wore the ruffles on his powder blue shirt aside. There were titters from the auditorium in the first part of the ballet at the admittedly comic way that Zenaida Yanowsky pushed and pulled at her admirers and shrugged off the hurt of her ward Vera (Emma Maguire) upon her discovery of her mentor and lover together. It seemed hard to become emotionally involved with the first world problems of a bored and capricious rich woman of a bygone era; but then Yanowsky’s achingly sensual epaulement and a tender pas de deux in which she seemed to be melting into complex emotion rather than merely dancing began to convince me otherwise. By the time Yanowsky stood, contemplating the flower her lover left her as the curtain fell, I was moved to sadness and regret for them.

Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia and Rupert Pennefather as Beliaev in <i>A Month in the Country</i> © Tristram Kenton
Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia and Rupert Pennefather as Beliaev in A Month in the Country
© Tristram Kenton
Presented with a panorama of the Ashton style, I was reminded of WH Auden's lines: ‘There is always another story/ there is more than meets the eye.’  Not for Auden the tortured metaphor or a clever synonym, and not for Ashton the contortion of limbs or flashy tricks to stun an audience into hype. Both creators used the simple building blocks of their language ( be that words or dance)  and created works that are anything but simple; delicate and lyrical, accessible, familiar, and wholly moving.