There are triple bills ---and there are triple bills. And this one –the first of The Royal Ballet’s 2011/12 season -- is certainly a top rate one.

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Marguerite and Armand © Royal Opera House / Tristram Kenton
Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Marguerite and Armand
© Royal Opera House / Tristram Kenton

The programme, put together by Artistic director Monica Mason in her final year at the helm, gives an historical glimpse into the foundations and creative growth of The Royal Ballet over the years. This triple bill includes a dramatic 19th century style work by Sir Frederick Ashton created in 1963; a 20th century work from 1976 by Sir Kenneth MacMillan; and a view of stripped-bare and highly physical 21st century choreography from 41 year old Wayne McGregor, who is now Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet. While their approaches to the works are completely different, each choreographer demands great musicality, heightened drama and incredible technical abilities from his dancers –and gets them. You couldn’t wish for three more contrasting and engrossing pieces in one programme.

The evening opens with the ‘modern’ one. Limen by McGregor is a 26 minute pilotless paean to flexibility. Limen is a Latin word meaning threshold or limit and MacGregor has used this to denote ‘a point of entering or beginning.’ (There’s certainly no limit to the raw physical abilities required in the ballet). Together with designer Tatsuo Miyajima, who is known for his light and number installations in productions, with the often jarring music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, played with vigour by cellist Anssi Karttunen, fifteen seemingly boneless dancers, contort, coil and spring to the cello’s cutting rhythms with brilliant displays of technique. Despite being stretched like chewing gum, with legs pulled apart to ‘ouch’ positions, torsos collapsing like concertinas, bodies bending into S shapes with bottoms sticking out and limbs reaching skywards, the tautness, grace and beauty of the dancers’ techniques are never lost.

Behind a scrim onto which numbers floated, fell and bounced up again as new digits, rubber-man Edward Watson stood alone, every part of his body moving in rippling action. Then the stage burst with light and action as bare sinewy legged couples pulled and pushed against each other. The stellar cast included Leanne Benjamin, Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Steven McRae, Ryoichi Hirano and thrust into the spotlight a young first artist, Olivia Cowley, who showed fantastic flexibility and musicality in her demanding solos and duets. In the finale, the dancers change from their mix and match clothes to flesh-coloured unitard shorts. Here, fragile-looking, pale Sarah Lamb contrasted with the dark skin tones and muscularity of Eric Underwood. Both possess limbs that reach for the sky in over-extended arcs, and he partnered with skill and split-second timings in all her oblique balances and open-leg stretches.

Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand is a complete contrast. With flouncy dresses, billowing cloak, pudding basin wigs and much over-the-top emotion, it tells the story of La Dame aux Camellias in a concise one-act ballet. Created to show off the talents of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev at the height of their popularity, the ballet, to Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, is a gem and is rarely seen since it requires two great exponents for the leading roles. And it has just that in the present two who were making their debuts as Marguerite and Armand. Russian born Sergei Polunin brings all the fire and passion that Nureyev exhibited in the role -the runs, the turning jumps, the leaps across stage, the adoration. And Polunin’s acting is convincing too. For Tamara Rojo, Marguerite is her role. The Spanish ballerina continues to amaze with her intensity and characterization showing, that along with learning the steps, she has dug deep and found new depths in the role’s emotional structure. She demonstrates her experienced professionalism here as Marguerite, with intellectual detailing, together with secure technique. It was a nostalgic half-hour and beautifully executed by all.

And finally, Requiem. What can one say about this work? The music by Faure is sublime and MacMillan’s choreography evokes its spiritual message in lyrical and evocative steps. Created as a personal tribute to his friend and colleague, John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, who died tragically in 1973, MacMillan has created a stunningly beautiful realization of this Mass for the Dead. The set is simple with just six white thin columns adorning the stage. The Royal Opera Chorus and soloists—Anna Devin and Daniel Grice—and the musicians under the baton of Barry Wordsworth provided the solemnity of the work while the dancers in flesh coloured tights with patterning that suggested veins and muscles, moved deliberately capturing the spirit of the music. Frederic Bonelli and Melissa Hamilton offered fine interpretations in their solos work while Lauren Cuthbertson as the angelic figure in white chiffon showed exemplary dancing, her style and demeanor suggesting quiet and peace, especially in her solo, Pie Jesu. She was partnered by Nehemiah Kish, who in the final moments, with her standing high on his shoulder, he carried her away towards the light. Then and only then as the curtains descended was the audience allowed to applaud.