Last Friday, The Royal Ballet presented an exciting bill composed of George Balanchine’s iconic Apollo (1928) and two new ballets by acclaimed choreographers Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. The programme was cleverly designed, since Ratmansky and Wheeldon are renowned explorers of the neoclassical style inaugurated by Balanchine. However, the success of the evening was uneven, since not all the pieces proved to be equally effective.

The night started with a surprisingly disappointing performance of Apollo, the work created by Balanchine while he was still part of Diaghilev’s avant-garde Ballets Russes. Despite a high-class cast lead by Carlos Acosta as the god, and Marianela Núñez as Terpsichore, the muse of dance, the interpretation of this emblematic piece failed to convey the vibrant preciseness infused by Balanchine. Igor Stravinsky’s music was played in a languid tempo that imposed a lethargic mood in the movement and the dancers’ lack of attack and nerve did not improve the heavy atmosphere. In addition, they demonstrated an absolute absence of musicality in many passages of the ballet, failing to achieve the perfect timing required by Balanchine’s style. Their impeccable poses and beautiful lines were not enough to enliven a forgettable performance.

By contrast, Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes, at the heart of the bill, proved to be a highly enjoyable piece. The work takes its title from the musical pieces of the same name composed by Fryderyk Chopin and is inspired by the wide range of moods suggested by them. A plotless ballet, 24 Preludes entirely relies on the power of dance to convey emotions. Following Balanchine’s preference for sparing use of set and costumes, Ratmansky has opted for a bare stage dressed only with light effects and projections of beautiful images of clouds in the backdrop. Within the atmosphere of peace that emerges from these lighting designs, devised by Neil Austin, the metallic grey and violet costumes created by Colleen Atwood add a touch of timelessness and elegance.

The choreography is a dynamic and stimulating alternation of solos, duets, trios and quartets. Only the last prelude is danced by all eight of the cast’s dancers. Despite their variety, all twenty four fragments offer a distinctive combination of the same ingredients: pure lines, playful tone and fast clean movements. The excellent dancers of this performance beautifully rendered the sense of enjoyment that arises from Ratmansky’s exploration of classical vocabulary. Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae were superb in bringing youthful vitality and sheer virtuosity to the piece. Zenaida Yanowsky contributed with her potent stage presence, whereas Sara Lamb added a sweet, quiet alternative to Leanne Benjamin’s humorously discordant voice. The rest of the boys, Edward Watson, Rupert Pennefather and Valeri Hristov, danced with warm, secure command and frisky aplomb.

The evening finished with Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. In honour of the centenary of the composer’s birth, Wheeldon has created a ballet that closely follows the structure of the musical piece. It has three different movements that, in the absence of a clearly delineated story or a clue in the programme notes, I took to represent birth, death and the afterlife. Although Wheeldon’s intention is undefined and the ballet is open to many interpretations, I find some hints of a possible symbolic meaning behind the dance.

The set changes from an ochre-dominated place to a pristine white environment, suggesting an evolution from earth to heaven that matches the idea behind the title and the requiem music. The dance patterns are arranged around a central female figure, played again by Núñez, which seems to lead a group of people from chaos to civilization. Accordingly, Wheeldon’s choreography is dominated by group dances and solos, though there are two significant pas de deux that Núñez dances with two different men. In the first movement, she is partnered by Nehemiah Kish and the duet possesses a physical quality that stresses Núñez’s strong technical ability. By contrast, her partner in the last movement is a nobler Federico Bonelli. His attentive support is tinged with a lyrical undertone that allows the piece to end in a poetic key. The choreography is also peppered with enigmatic dance motifs, most notably Núñez’s use of her lifted bent leg as a gun. The image created is certainly powerful, but its cohesion within the choreography remains unclear to me. Similarly, the whole piece emerges in my memory as a mysterious mixture of mortality and mysticism that is too puzzling after just one viewing.