A momentous occasion for some; hugely frustrating for others: The Royal Ballet’s first live onstage performance was cherished by many, particularly those who braved the face masks and social distancing to be present in the opera house, but a source of irritation for others unable to access the live streaming.  At the time of writing, there are over 3,200 comments on the ROH website, which appear to be broadly split between these polar extremes.

The Royal Ballet in Elite Syncopations
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Watching on an iPad, I was fortunate not to experience the connection failures that affected others (apparently it was a particular problem for those watching on so-called smart TVs) and it was certainly a good feeling to see the company back on stage. Nonetheless I found the programme to be disappointingly unadventurous and I felt it to be an error of judgement to finish with an adapted full-length Elite Syncopations, taking the whole event close to the three-hour mark. Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s carefree tribute to the rhythms of Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers lost most of its charm and musical impact when viewed on a small screen. The music was “tinny” and distant and the laudable decision to get the whole company on stage for the finale made the proceedings a blur, albeit a colourful one in Ian Spurling’s psychedelic costumes (perfect for 1974, when it was made, but very dated now); having the unfortunate effect of diminishing the few performance gems hidden within (especially Claire Calvert’s Calliope and Paul Kay with Melissa Hamilton in the Alaskan Rag).

© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Having criticised the ending, I applaud the opening since the brief extract from Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable was both a pertinent comment on our current societal circumstances and a great opportunity to showcase the corps de ballet. Later, the finale from Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour brought a renewed emphasis to the gleaming quality of the company’s ensemble dancing. 

The only new work was a fluid but fleeting duet by Cathy Marston for Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke, entitled In Our Wishes. Marston has a particular strength for telling stories through choreography and this non-narrative duet was therefore unusual. It is the only piece that I watched twice and the intensity and emotion resonated with me more on the second viewing. Natalia Osipova’s feverish solo from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Medusa also seemed refreshingly original, especially within this programme of many duets.

Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke dance In Our Wishes
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Another highlight was the rarely-seen If I Loved You duet from MacMillan’s choreography for Nicholas Hytner’s production of Carousel (the choreographer’s final work), which was danced with impressive passion and expression by Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball. Although MacMillan’s choreography doesn’t adequately convey the complex psychology in the relationship between the rough-edged Billy Bigelow and starry-eyed Julie Jordan, Magri and Ball captured his carefree interpretation with theatrical flair.   

Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Núñez in Don Quixote
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Vadim Muntagirov has exited lockdown with a new maturity. Gone is the coltish air of the loveable ingénu to be replaced by an imposing physicality, as evidenced by an excellent grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, danced with Marianela Nuñez in the evening’s stellar performance. At the opposite end of the classical pas de deux spectrum, Akane Takada and Federico Bonelli danced an adorable adagio from Swan Lake with Bonelli’s strong partnering enhancing the effect of Takada’s ethereal elegance and line.

It would be interesting to understand the thought process of having two dancers perform as Oberon in separate excerpts from The Dream (was it just to make the numbers up?). This strange artistic licence didn’t work since William Bracewell and Alexander Campbell are so dissimilar in their interpretation that they appeared to be different characters. Valentino Zucchetti is perfectly cast as Puck; Ashley Dean claims the stage at every opportunity (as here, cast as Moth); and, as Titania, Laura Morera once more demonstrated her command of Ashton’s choreography. It was also a delight to see Edward Watson return to stage (with Takada and Calvin Richardson), as if his announced retirement was a lockdown figment of fancy, in the I Now, I Then section from Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works.

Within the Golden Hour
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé illustrated a joyous Act 1 pas de deux from another Ashton classic, La Fille mal gardée while Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales brought a conspicuous intensity (and a notable kiss) to the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. Less striking was the Diamonds pas de deux by Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano, which – shorn of its setting – just didn’t sparkle.   

There was too much onstage chat with host Anita Rani, often reading from cue cards, which added insufficient insight to justify the extra time in an event that will be long-remembered for the occasion, if not for its content.      

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Opera House's video stream.