While watching Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, I was reminded of a central truth about ballet. The world's great dance companies have a distinct style that is rooted in their academy systems. They train young dancers in their signature style and aesthetic of movement for many years which results in a unity of purpose that is unique. The Royal Ballet is one of those great companies, where so many little things are done with purity, grace and elegance. I wondered if their distinctive style survived the integration of so many dancers from around the world – the company is now as diverse as any you can think of. Consider the bourré (or couru), a small movement with the feet together on pointe, many tiny little steps with the legs seemingly barely moving. It gives the illusion of floating and no other women in the world do it as beautifully as the Royal Ballet. Their hands are things of delicacy, like porcelain figurines, with each finger separately and elegantly articulated. When they raise their arms over their heads, they create a perfect frame for their faces with each sharing the same limpid geometry. With the globalization of leading dance troupes one might see some loss of individual identity but the Royal Ballet managed to hang onto its pedigree.

Natalia Osipova as Titania in <i>The Dream</i> © Bill Cooper
Natalia Osipova as Titania in The Dream
© Bill Cooper

Ashton's The Dream, a masterful work, was a triumph of the Royal Ballet’s story-telling ability. These dancers know how to play comedy with such deft assurance that you barely realize they aren’t using words. Olivia Cowley, Tomas Mock, Claire Calvert and Ryoichi Hirano were hilarious as the crossed up quartet of lovers. As they chased each other around the stage they were fun and funny without going overboard. Bottom was played with donkey-ish delight by Jonathan Howells. Despite taking an early flop, Natalia Osipova (seemingly recovered from an injury that prevented her from performing with American Ballet Theatre just ten days ago) bounced back up and delivered a first rate performance as Titania, with the thoroughly enjoyable Matthew Golding as her Oberon. Her exuberance is perfect for this role and she seems at home with this company. Their pas de deux of reconciliation at the end of the ballet was full of lovely moments, managing to be earthily romantic and unearthly refined at the same time. While all roles were excellent, Ashton gave the best dancing in this ballet to Puck. Valentino Zucchetti put the puckish in his Puck with buoyant elevation and boyish élan. He may not be princely material, but he flies much higher in this sort of character role which allows his expressive face to inject a degree of glee that is necessary to make this farce fly. At every turn, leap, laugh and shrug, he was the one who let us in on the joke.

Less pleasurable to my mind was Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, set to the Mahler song cycle. The most successful element here was surprisingly the City Ballet orchestra which also did very well with The Dream. I imagine they don’t get to perform Mahler often but it was well done, especially by the woodwinds. Katharine Goeldner’s warm mezzo well outpaced tenor Thomas Randle who seemed to be pressing in his upper register, producing a strained sound.

Edward Watson in <i>Song of the Earth</i> © ROH / Johan Persson
Edward Watson in Song of the Earth
© ROH / Johan Persson
This ballet is one that the Royal Ballet holds dear, most often pairing it with The Dream, but I did not enjoy it. This was partly down to the casting and partly down to the ballet itself. The pairing of Laura Morera and Nehemiah Kish was uninspiring in this performance. Kish seemed uncomfortable with the steps and projected little to nothing while Morera had the air of being emotionally frozen even though she danced well. The problems extend to the choreography. Some hold that this is one of MacMillan’s greatest works but it seems to me to be an anxious attempt on his part to create a contemporary ballet. The dance he created for the men was too self-consciously masculine and generally stolid. Their blocky movements precluded deeper expression from the men with the exception of Edward Watson who played the Messenger of Death with an aura of implacability. Alone among the men he seemed fully immersed in the idiosyncratic vocabulary of movement and while I still didn’t love the choreography, he is a wonderful dancer. The women had better choreography and there were a couple of bright spots. Yuhui Choe was a warm and accessible presence in the Third Song with a lush, lyrical quality of movement. Laura Turk also was graceful and radiant. It may be that this ballet simply holds more appeal for a British audience because the New York public was clearly ambivalent about it.

It is deeply troubling that spiraling costs make it so difficult for large dance companies like the Royal Ballet to travel abroad. They have been sorely missed here in New York and we would love to see them more frequently. Please come back soon Royal Ballet!