It’s not often we dance critics abandon our note-writing, put down our pens and surrender ourselves to the abundance of creativity onstage. But The Royal Ballet’s Live – Within the Golden Hour was one such occasion. Yes, there was an element of being grateful to be able to watch any live dance at all – albeit onscreen rather in the theatre. The Royal Ballet’s recent return to live audiences (which I was fortunate to attend), in a programme closely resembling this one, swiftly morphed into its closing night as we entered a second lockdown. And yes there was a degree of wanting to support these artists, who have suffered so much. But here, the sheer artistry on display was more than enough to override any prior bias.

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Madison Bailey, Leo Dixon, Liam Boswell and Sophie Alnatt in Scherzo
© ROH | Emma Kauldhar

Gala events can be tricky to pull off, musically and artistically. Unless there’s a narrative to drive it forward, it can become a series of pleasant but meaningless divertissements. The Royal Ballet avoided this with a strong start – the premiere of First Soloist Valentino Zucchetti’s Scherzo, to the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Marking Zucchetti’s first foray onto the main stage as a choreographer, Scherzo was a welcome showcase for the Company’s younger dancers. They all relished the energy and musicality of Zucchetti’s exuberant choreography, which was at times a visual manifestation of Rachmaninov’s sweeping orchestral score, played with commitment by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Jonathan Lo. The Rachmaninov theme then continued with Ashton’s Rhapsody, with the wonderful Robert Clark on piano, sublimely danced by Alexander Campbell and Akane Takada.

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Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke in Monotones II
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It’s easy to miss the mark with Ashton’s Monotones II, and those space-age catsuits and bathing hats don’t help. But I love Melissa Hamilton in this ballet, her poised, long-limbed extensions and hip rotations seemingly propelled more by Satie’s music than the manipulations of her two male partners.

For last week’s live audience, Tchaikovsky’s Pas De Deux was danced with typical flair by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. This time, it was the turn of First Soloist Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Principal Marcelino Sambé. Theirs is a joyous onstage partnership, which translated into a technically assured, bravura-filled performance.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke dancing In Our Wishes, Cathy Marston’s depiction of a doomed love affair created for this real-life couple for last month’s Back on Stage event. But Soloist Romany Pajdak was wonderfully expressive, showing her anguish facially and physically as, to Kate Shipway’s emotive performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in F sharp minor, Op.23 no.1, she wrapped herself around Calvin Richardson, then pushed him away.

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Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales in Swan Lake
© ROH | Emma Kauldhar

Thus began the storytelling section of the gala, which followed with the Act 2 pas de deux from Swan Lake danced by another offstage couple: the exceptional Francesca Hayward – those hands! – and Cesar Corrales, somewhat detached here until he folded her arms to her waist and rocked her gently from side to side. But there was no holding back in Manon’s Act 1 pas de deux from Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli, two stalwart Principals whose experience (together with MacMillan’s glorious choreography and Massenet’s surging score) allowed them to transcend technique altogether.

A more reserved emotion was displayed by Yasmine Naghdi and Nicol Edmonds in MacMillan’s Concerto, set to the soulful slow movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, divinely played by Shipway. But this was a thoroughly elegant performance, with Naghdi basking in MacMillan’s arm swoops and full-body dives.

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William Bracewell in Dance of the Blessed Spirits
© ROH | Emma Kaudhar

It was a good night for music lovers, and things got even better with Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, hauntingly played by Katherine Baker and danced impeccably by First Soloist William Bracewell – a Nijinsky-like apparition onstage, and one to watch. As for Natalia Osipova’s Dying Swan, with cellist Christopher Vanderspar revelling in Saint-Saëns’s mournful melody, her interpretation – not withstanding those astonishing backbends – was an acquired taste. This swan really was dying – she actually staggered at the end, as if drawing her last breath.

It seems churlish to compare this Le Corsaire pas deux to the one from Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri, making their role debuts in Petipa’s tour de force a week ago. But Nuñez and Muntagirov had the edge here, their wealth of experience – and visible command of the vast stage – translating into whip-fast fouettés and gasp-inducing tours en l’air.

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The Royal Ballet dances Within the Golden Hour
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Finishing with Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour was a savvy choice. Set to minimalist string music by the late Ezio Bosso and Vivaldi, eight dancers and three couples flitted across the stage like starbursts, their gossamer Conran-designed costumes catching the light. Of the three couples, Kaneko and Clarke were the most affecting, Kaneko swooning to the Celtic-tinged solo violin (Sergey Levitin, excellent), Clarke her anchor. But this was a Company effort, and as the curtain fell everyone watching was reminded what a very special Company this is.

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