It would be fascinating to be that “fly on the wall” when each season’s repertoire for The Royal Ballet is determined, if for no other reason than to confirm my impression that, every year, there is a programme that resembles the remnants basket at a village hall bring-and-buy sale.

Calvin Richardson in <i>Obsidian Tear</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Calvin Richardson in Obsidian Tear
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Many mixed bills will have a theme (such as the recent programme set to Bernstein’s music) but there is no discernible artistic association to connect the three random works that comprise this year’s leftover assortment, each making a relatively quick return to the stage, which at least brings the association of less cost and easier preparation. Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear premiered in June 2016; Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand was in last season’s repertoire; and Elite Syncopations was performed to mark the 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death, just last autumn, albeit with guests from other British ballet companies.

Obsidian Tear was McGregor’s fifteenth work for the company but his first for an all-male cast. We tend to regard McGregor as a choreographer governed by the head and not the heart; a man of science as much as the arts. And, his choreography has invariably pursued that cerebral inquiry into the extreme capabilities of the human body rather than the narrative potential of movement. He is the least romantic choreographer but – in this work – one sensed a new dynamic of evident sentimentality, established from the long and lingering opening duet for Calvin Richardson and Matthew Ball. This emotional impact is sharpened by the repetitive harmonies of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Chaconne for solo violin, entitled Lachen verlernt (laughing relearnt), languorously played by Vasko Vassilev; the title being a quotation from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in which a female clown begs to recall the ability to laugh.  

<i>Obsidian Tear</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Obsidian Tear
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The ballet’s title, however, derives from a Native American legend of Apache warriors leaping from a clifftop rather than surrender to the US cavalry; the tears shed by their families solidifying into small obsidian (or, volcanic) rocks. After the violin solo, Salonen’s symphonic movement, Nyx (named after an obscure Greek goddess), provides a tumultuous musical journey; tender, mysterious and climactic. McGregor’s ensemble movement steadfastly engages the music – with this austere environment of tribal self-destruction enveloped in a simple black box (designed by McGregor, himself) – until Ball is the last man standing; bravely throwing himself into the chasm as Salonen’s final notes sound. This early revival confirmed my initial view that Obsidian Tear marked McGregor’s return to top form.

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in <i>Marguerite and Armand</i> © ROH | Tristam Kenton
Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Marguerite and Armand
© ROH | Tristam Kenton

Marguerite and Armand was on ballet’s endangered list for several years. It was Ashton’s last full ballet to be created on Margot Fonteyn, which she danced frequently with Nureyev.  After their retirement, it remained dormant until revived on Sylvie Guillem, in 2000.  Nowadays, it is once more performed all over the world and has deservedly become a permanent fixture in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire; and no ballerina deserves to inherit Fonteyn’s crown jewel more than Alessandra Ferri.

Simply put, Ferri is magnificent as the Lady of the Camellias, reliving past experiences in the last stages of her consumptive demise. She is ageless: radiant in her daydreams of the courtesan who enraptured the men of Parisian salon society; desparate in her moral struggle to leave riches behind for her one true love (shades of Manon and Des Grieux, in an earlier French tale of passion and death); and so fragile in the agonies of those final days.  It is a seminal performance by a truly great ballerina. 

As Armand, Federico Bonelli portrays an honourable and virtuous young man, yearning for a love not quite within his grasp. Christopher Saunders and Gary Avis bring a solid sense of theatre to their respective performances as Armand’s father and her principal benefactor, a Duke. Robert Clark’s solo pianism was sensitively nuanced as a tender tribute to Dudley Simpson – the orchestrator of Liszt’s music, for Marguerite and Armand – who died, last year, and in whose memory this performance was dedicated. It is a tear-jerking, romantic story but I always wonder about the way in which Marguerite is thrown around in that final deathbed pas de deux... not exactly ideal for those poor, wasted lungs!

Laura McCulloch and Paul Kay in <i>Elite Syncopations</i> © ROH | Johan Persson
Laura McCulloch and Paul Kay in Elite Syncopations
© ROH | Johan Persson

The disappointment of the programme was Elite Syncopations. The bouncy Ragtime songs and Ian Spurling’s vivid, sexy costumes always bring an uplifting spirit and MacMillan's choreography was skilfully performed. But where was the zip and personality that these dances deserve, if only in acknowledgement of the performers who created them? Recent interpretations by Birmingham Royal Ballet have been so much better articulated with the richness of character that each role deserves. Frankly, I felt that only Paul Kay and Tristan Dyer came close to the sense of vaudeville and spontaneity that I have felt from other casts. It seemed like a company going through the motions rather than one that truly owns this ballet (an accolade that currently resides in Birmingham).