The annual matinée of The Royal Ballet School (RBS) at the Royal Opera House is a major date in the dance diary. The most prestigious ballet school in the UK, the performance is a chance not only to spot emerging talent but also to assess its strengths.

Taeryeong Kim as Kitri in Carlos Acosta's Don Quixote

Last year, the RBS gave a superb account of Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of Raymonda Act III, in which each solo variation was taken with aplomb and the ensemble dancing was immaculate. If this year’s students didn’t quite achieve that same level of brilliance, they did offer the audience some strong dancing in a very mixed selection of choreography. 

The afternoon opened with a neat account of the Vision Scene from Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote, as staged by Carlos Acosta. There are better Petipa ballets than this, and better Vision Scenes, but this was the only ‘tutu ballet’ on view this afternoon. The all-female corps de ballet danced with nifty, fast footwork, and the soloists – Taeryeong Kim as Kitri, Milda Luckute as the Queen of the Dryads and Katie Robertson as Amour – were technically accomplished, although I would like to have seen more personality from them all. Luckute is tall and blonde, with rock solid relevé développé écartés. Robertson small and dark, with quicksilver speed, and Kim, also small and dark, swept the stage with a series of grand jetés.

Austen McDonald and George Edwards in Mikaela Polley's Fast Blue

Mikaela Polley’s Fast Blue, to music by Elena Kats-Chernin, gave the young men of the Upper School a chance to shine in the things they love doing best: jumping and turning. It’s a celebratory work and allowed the dancers to group, line-up and dazzle in solos, duos, trios and more. The strength of the ensemble was impressive and underlined the fact that, this year, the exceptional students are nearly all male.

Fast Blue was followed by Hora La Aninoasa, a sweet series of traditional Romanian folk dances staged by Tom Bosma and performed by students of the Lower School. Years ago, it was a tradition of the RBS to perform folk dances from the United Kingdom, something which seems to have fallen by the wayside, but these Romanian dances are a good grounding for the students in their understanding of stage craft and of working together as an ensemble. This section of the programme was perhaps a little over-long, but it was a pleasure to see such young dancers happily taking to the stage.

The Royal Ballet School in Kenneth MacMillan's The Four Seasons

Next up was a rarity, a series of extracts from Kenneth MacMillan’s The Four Seasons. Not seen in its entirety at Covent Garden since the early 1980s, it was danced by the Upper School to a delicious selection of ballet music that Giuseppe Verdi composed for the operas Jérusalem and Don Carlos, and is choreographed in the style of August Bournonville, the master dance-maker of ballet’s Romantic age. The piece requires a large corps de ballet of male and female dancers, with quick beaten jumps, rich épaulement and back bends and fast footwork, all in the “old” Royal Ballet style. I thought the ballet enchanting and eminently worth reviving in full. It also offered the audience a chance to see a very different side of MacMillan’s choreographic style, one almost entirely based on classical technique.

Ptolemy Gidney in August Bournonville's Konservatoriet

After the charm of The Four Seasons, I was brought down to earth by Jiří Kylián's Sechs Tänze, a work I loathe. Danced to music by Mozart, the choreographer tries too hard (and fails) to be funny and quirky, the dancing deeply unmusical and trite, and the appearances of two men, dragged up in huge skirts, almost offensively camp in this day and age. The only reason for its inclusion in the performance, I suppose, is that it is likely some of the students will perform this kind of work when they become professionals.

Emile Gooding in Goyo Montero's Bold

The second half of the long programme opened with a group of Lower and Upper School students in the “Ballet Class” scene from Bournonville’s Konservatoriet. Bournonville is a tough challenge for professionals, let alone students and I felt the RBS pupils were not entirely comfortable in the choreography (which is like a Degas painting come to life). Ptolemy Gidney, as the Dancing Master, came closest to mastering Bournonville’s style, with neat, clean, effortless beaten jumps, but the rest of the cast needed to bring more bounce and a greater sense of a rounded dance vocabulary to the performance, and less emphasis on high leg extensions.

Caspar Lench and Guillem Cabrera Espinach in Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour

The RBS were much more at home in the following two pieces. Goyo Montero’s Bold, to music by Owen Belton, is an energetic abstract piece with much rushing around. A little generic, it was superbly danced by the entire cast, but as all of them were dressed in black, and with dark lighting, it was difficult to distinguish individual dancers. Even better were the extracts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, beautifully and sleekly performed. Guillem Cabrera Espinach and Caspar Lench were dazzling in the fast-moving male duet, as good as any professionals I have seen, and in the pas de deux Sierra Glasheen, skilfully partnered by Blake Smith, was ravishing. It’s good to know that Glasheen, Lench and Smith join The Royal Ballet as Aud Jebsen Young Dancers next season, and that Cabrera Espinach goes to the Joffrey Ballet Studio Company.

Caspar Lench in Robert Battle's Takademe

In the build-up to the Grand Défilé came two shorter pieces. The final pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons never fails to make me shed a tear when I’m watching the complete ballet, but, oddly, it never seems to work out of context. Liya Fan and Tom Hazelby were good, but they didn’t make me cry. After this, Caspar Lench dazzled the audience again in Robert Battle’s solo Takademe. Then, with wave after wave of young dancers, the audience rose to its feet to cheer the Grand Défilé, which brings the entire school on stage.

Seeing the whole school together, it was interesting to note how much more diverse it has become. More needs to be done on this, but it was good to see the RBS embracing change and becoming more reflective of British society – long may it continue.