The art of curating a triple bill can be both vexed and vexing, allowing the possibility of either a seamless or disjointed evening of dance. This was somewhere in between.  

Consistency came in the historical symmetry of works by a triumvirate of the titans of twentieth century anglo-american ballet: the two British choreographic knights, Sir Frederick Ashton and SIr Kenneth MacMillan; and that man who joined Broadway with ballet, Jerome Robbins. Only his mentor, Balanchine, was missing, although Symphony in C featured in the previous triple bill, just last month.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Robbins' The Concert
© Alice Pennefather | ROH, 2018

Content is where the seams showed. Winter whimsy gave way to the tragedy of Winter Dreams and then, bizarrely, onto the madness of a concert where people became the pupae that surreally transform into multi-coloured butterflies. So, an emotional slaying via a dawn duel in a Russian field gave way to swapping deckchairs in “Central Park”. It was that kind of an evening.

Robbins’ The Concert is the most dated of the three pieces. Made in 1956, it was the first of his work to be set to Chopin–- he was to make three more, the most enduring of which is Dances at a Gathering (1969). This was the era of zany American comedy – Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis – which may explain Robbins’ predeliction with slapstick farce, complete with 50s gender stereotypes and comic-book humour: the henpecked – Groucho-Marx lookalike – husband creeping up behind his domineering culture-loving wife, wobbly knife in hand, could have been a caricature of Wile. E Coyote in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  

Despite the Chopin Preludes (played superbly onstage by Robert Clark, who threw himself into the comedy acting as a pretentious pianist), it’s a work that doesn’t play well to the social mores of 2018, including dizzy girls being carried around – and patted on the bottom – by hunky men.   Nonetheless, Lauren Cuthbertson has a ball in an ebullient performance rich in charisma and comedy, letting her hair down (literally) to play ballet’s equivalent of a stand-up comedienne with gusto while exuding oodles of fun. Laura Morera is a great foil as the uptight wife with Nehemia Kish as her malevolent husband with the comedy knife! The centrepiece of a corps de ballet in which one dancer is always out of step or moving in the wrong direction is a masterpiece of comic timing. The work may be dated but these excellent performances kept it entertaining.

Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez in MacMillan's Winter Dreams
© Alice Pennefather | ROH,2018

Winter Dreams is late MacMillan vintage, which premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1991 (the year before he died). Inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters, it concerns the lives and loves of these women, stuck in a provincial Russian garrison town at the turn of the last century. The middle sister, Masha, respectably married to a man she does not love, is seduced into an affair with the local army commander, Colonel Vershinin. A sub-plot concerns the rivalry of two men for the younger sister, Irina (Yasmine Naghdi), which leads to the aforementioned duel. A Spartan set has the small balalaika and mandolin ensemble, together with the pianist – Clark again, this time playing Tchaikovsky – upstage behind a curtain. 

The roles of Masha and Vershinin were made on Darcey Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov, which are mighty shoes to fill, but Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares do so with a coruscating impact. Their own emotional history, as a formerly-married couple, resonates with the heightened emotions of the ‘Farewell’ pas de deux; and they dance it with tremendous chemistry and a wholly-absorbing tension. It was the highlight of the evening. I have seen this duet so many times out-of-context – as regular gala fare – that it was a pleasure to see the whole ballet once more.

Gary Avis was in the original cast (playing the brother, Andrey) and here – 27 years later – he made an unscheduled appearance as a late replacement for Bennet Gartside as the cuckolded husband, Fyodor, which he portrayed with palpable empathy: resigned to her infidelity and accepting her ‘return’. Winter Dreams conjures many associations: a hint of Brief Encounter (for Fyodor, read Fred); a touch of Onegin; a dollop of A Month in the Country.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Ashton's Les Patineurs
© Alice Pennefather | ROH, 2018

The opening ballet, Les Patineurs – made by Ashton, in 1937 – stands the test of time, best of all. Superficially whimsical, a balletic metaphor for dancing on ice in every-which-way, it is nonetheless beautifully crafted and structurally superb; enhanced and enlivened by a full rink of excellent performances, notably by the whirling virtuosity of Marcelino Sambé and the pointework pairing of Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Yuhui Choe.  

Ashton was the choreographic equivalent of a great miniaturist, a meticulous draughtsman or the finest needlepoint embroiderer. He could also capture the charm of gentle humour in dance better than anyone (he was, after all, the man who set the Tales of Beatrix Potter to ballet). Les Patineurs is the perfect capsule of a winter dream: one that comes in a snooze after mulled wine in front of a roaring log fire.