The Royal Ballet's Ashton programme began with The Dream, made in 1964 as part of the celebrations to mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s birth. It was the ballet that launched Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley’s careers, as Ashton cast them as Oberon and Titania and began their partnership. 

Bennet Gartside (Bottom) and Akane Takada (Titania) in Ashton's The Dream
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2017

The roles of the fairy King and Queen were danced by Steven McRae and Akane Takada. They were light and ethereal, wonderfully expressing that intriguing mixture of delicate sugar and capricious spice that makes Shakespeare’s fairies so consistently compelling through the ages, particularly in the intricate final pas de deux. Mendelssohn’s music is perfectly matched to both the story and the dance, and the way that Ashton creates a different dance vocabulary for the different sets of characters; fairies, lovers and Mechanicals, recalls Shakespeare in a very authentic way.

However, I found there was something unsophisticated about this ballet, perhaps because the scenario was stripped down a little too much and there was little context to the dancing. An audience needs to have a lot of knowledge of the play to really understand what is going on and then fill in the gaps for themselves. I felt the Mechanicals were underused, with one funny interlude but no real idea of what they were doing in the forest, and Puck was reduced to a simple sprite, not the ancient ambivalent force of the forest that he can be in some interpretations. 

This work was beautifully danced by a company completely on top of their ‘Ashton style’, but the ballet itself only teases. It left me hungry for something more substantial, like the feeling of eating a sugary dessert before the main course.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Symphonic Variations
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2017

Luckily, that something more was to come. Ashton has always been known as an intensely musical choreographer, and this performance of Symphonic Variations showed exceptional musicality from all six dancers, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. What always astonishes me about this piece is the haunting quality of stillness it possesses. I have observed in other Ashton works the way that he allows dancers to hold the stage without moving, often while the music is tumbling and roaring in a huge crescendo around them, and the effect is to make the movement all the more precious. 

The mood gradually moved from elegiac to joyful, the twenty minutes of dancing passing in a haze as the dancers hypnotised us until, too soon, it was over. It is rare for me to find more meaning in abstract, plotless dance than in narrative works, but this occasion was one such time. The depth I felt was lacking in The Dream was more than made up for with the timeless elegance of this most famous of Ashton’s ballets. 

Marguerite and Armand was created in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, at the height of their legendary partnership that electrified the ballet world. It was never danced by another couple as long as they remained alive, and there are those who believe it never should be, that instead it should be left as an ephemeral historical artefact locked in the lucky memories of those who saw the ballet decades ago.

Zenaida Yanowsky (Marguerite) and Roberto Bolle (Armand) in Marguerite and Armand
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2017

Based on the same story that gave us La Traviata, as well as numerous other tuberculosis themed love stories, this ballet almost exclusively rests on the relationship between the title characters, with very little dancing for anyone else. Ashton wanted to distill the story into concentrated episodes, told in flashback and relying heavily on the chemistry between the two star performers. I have to admit I found it somewhat difficult to enter into the spirit of believing in the powerful, dynamic pull between the lovers at first, with little context to guide me, but the choreography, more wild and abandoned than is customary for Ashton, soon dragged me in to the emotion between the lovers. Zenaida Yanowsky was particularly powerful as Marguerite, her performance gradually building in intensity to make her death very moving, which was quite a feat for a relatively short ballet.

Everything in the ballet, from the projected photographs of the leading dancers, to the sparse white set shows that this ballet needs an injection of star power to get it off the ground. It has always had that, at least at the Royal Ballet, where the memory of the ballet’s original interpreters has always ensured that superstars of the dance world are on hand to dance it. Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche were the first to dance in a revival in 2000, and Tamara Rojo danced it as her farewell performance in 2013. This revival is certainly not short of star power, with three combinations of excellent dancers taking the title roles: Zenaida Yanowsky/ Roberto Bolle, Alessandra Ferri/ Federico Bonelli, and Natalia Osipova/ Vladmir Shklyarov. The casting is relevant, for a ballet that is so much about personality. With these three pairings of star dancers, the Royal Ballet proves that its repertoire can be living, vibrant dance history.