The Mariinsky Ballet’s aptly named Contrasts triple bill, presented at the Royal Opera House during the company’s summer season is the only mixed programme of the run. Three one-act ballets by three distinctive choreographers, whose works stem from different backgrounds, periods and contexts put the Mariinsky’s exquisite dancers under a multifaceted microscope.

Diana Vishneva (Carmen)
© Natasha Razina

The evening opened with Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite, which entered the Mariinsky's repertoire in 2010 but was originally commissioned for the Bolshoi Theatre in 1967. Whilst George Bizet’s delectable music (rearranged here for the ballet stage by Rodion Shchedrin) is irresistibly fresh, the 50-years-old choreography really shows its age. Alonso’s decision to stage the action in a bullfighting arena, (over which a dull dark cloth featuring a large bull head hangs heavily) sets the mood of tension from the start, as if a precursor of things to come. The choreography is technically arduous and whilst it was perfectly executed by the whole cast, it leaves little room for interpretation and the enfolding of passion that should make Carmen so vibrant.

Throughout, Carmen interacts with three men: Alexander Romanchikov, a precise but rather subdued Corregidor, Evgeny Ivanchenko, a sharp but timid Torero and her love, Konstantin Zverev, whom I found most compelling as Don José during the pas de deux when Carmen woos him back into her arms after being caught seducing Torero. Whilst sound, all were shadowed by the resplendent Diana Vishneva who carried the weight of the whole production on her shoulders. She was stunning to watch, the free spirit of Carmen building up in her spine and jumping out of her limbs in pure joy despite an at times deceptively constrictive choreography. She flirted with the floor through the tip of her shoe, tamed Carmen’s fire through her spine, and then let it free at the height of the notes, as if the score was pulsing through her body. Vishneva tempered her seductive power as she lingered through the pas de liaison and nuances of an otherwise flashy choreography of kicks and tricks which she negotiated with in a way only a truly accomplished artist of her calibre could manage. Choreographically, I missed a climax of provocation, jealousy and anger before Carmen’s death in José's arms which, whilst beautiful, was more tender than it was dramatic. Alonso negotiates the shortcuts by featuring Fate, a female character looming over and sometimes mirroring Carmen’s moves and Ekaterina Chebykina’s crystal technique, delicate presence and elastic ballon brought light to the role.

Artists of the Mariinsky Ballet in Infra
© Valentin Baranovsky

Wayne McGregor’s Infra followed. It’s a bold choice for performances at the Royal Opera House, home to its creation for the Royal Ballet in 2008, but it's a good opportunity to see the Mariinsky dancers move in a different way. On a Max Richter soundscape, a group of dancers move in and out of the frame of the stage, meeting, dancing with each other, and parting ways as quickly as they came. Julian Opie’s designs feature an ongoing stream of people ‘digitally walking’ on a screen across the back of the stage as the dancers interact with each other (or their own selves) at the forefront. It’s a strikingly accurate depiction of contemporary society. Infra washes over you like a fresh morning’s ephemeral dew, but offers moments of intense beauty. Nadezhda Batoeva and Ekaterina Kondaurova stood out, subliming McGregor’s sinuous movement with distinctive finesse.

Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov in Paquita
© Valentin Baranovsky

The evening closed with the Grand Pas from Paquita (choreography by Petipa after Smekalov), a repertoire pièce de resistance for corps, seven female soloists and a lead couple, Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov, both compelling and assured in these roles. Whilst they’re a staple in gala evenings, and programmed in triple bills by large ballet companies, Grands Pas are harder to appreciate out of the context of the ballets from which they are taken, however the Mariinsky was excellent in this final bouquet. Throughout, the corps sections, variations (Batoeva and Kondaurova stood out again) and the pas de deux, faultless technique, impeccable musicality and stylistic precision demonstrated the company is still, by far, one of the very best classical ballet ensembles in the world.