There was no thought of letting the Royal Ballet dancers ease out gently in their last programme of the season. The Triple Bill now on offer demands from each of its exponents a mathematical brain, the precision of a Swiss watchmaker and the stamina of a fell runner.

Steven McRae as The Chosen One / Rite of Spring, © Johan Persson
Steven McRae as The Chosen One / Rite of Spring,
© Johan Persson

Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet, (which pays homage to the masterpieces of the great Russian Marius Petipa,) is highly complicated both musically and choreographically and one marvels at the demands it must have made on the early dancers 63 years ago when it was created. Today we applaud the gymnastic contortions of dancers in such works as McGregor’s Chroma or Wheeldon’s DGV, yet in this older ballet with its Euclidian geometrical floor patterns, the steps are just as complicated and physically challenging for the two soloists and corps de ballet of four boys and twelve girls, who show off their techniques in front of a ghostly white pavilion. Stravinsky’s eclectic score (which began its life in a Broadway revue), starts with a brief fanfare before the curtain rises on the premier danceur poised for the opening jumps. Taking flight, the young Russian principal, Sergei Polunin executed dexterously clean beats, and soft landings while beside him, the four boys began their intricate floor patterns. His ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson, in yellow tutu with white and black bodice, performed the complex permutations of Ashton’s creation with cool elegance and agility. The female corps, light and fleet of foot, were adorned with pearl encrusted matador hats, pearl chokers and sparkling bracelets, which they showed off with bent wrists. The ballet’s razor-sharp choreography and non-stop bustling action makes it compelling viewing.

The second piece was Glen Tetley’s 1973 Voluntaries, created for the dancers of Stuttgart Ballet after the untimely death of their director, John Cranko. It is a soulful, spiritual tribute, which evokes emotion and remembrances while also giving a sense of going forward. The petite and sinewy Leanne Benjamin was in excellent form demonstrating lyrical control and sensitivity and was easily lifted and carried by her partner, Canadian-trained Nehemiah Kish who, though offering good lines and taut technique, lacked the spark to make his performance memorable. (This was seen in Ryoichi Hirano’s dancing.) In front of a huge waxing and waning moon back curtain, the dancers, who wore white unitards spattered with coloured polka dots, sent their legs soaring skywards, sliced open in wide splits or flying through the air in stretched jumps. Sarah Lamb was particularly agile and graceful here. Poulenc’s organ concerto evokes the religious nature of the piece in which the ballet begins and ends with a cruciform pose.

And finally, Kenneth MacMillan’s individualistic version of The Rite of Spring, the mesmerizing ballet created by Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes in 1913, which had the Parisian audience booing and hissing for its hedonistic dancing and music. While today’s audiences are much more attuned to the thrown accents and rhythms of Stravinsky’s score and the un-ballet like actions of the dancers, for many at this Triple Bill production, there was also a surprise. MacMillan’s original intention nearly fifty years ago, was that the role of The Chosen One could be performed by either sex, yet since 1988, only women have performed it. Now it was the turn of a man again and at this matinee, Steven MacRae danced his heart out, showing he was a spectacular choice. A physical dynamo, McRae is a young man of immense virtuosity and threw himself into the sacrificial role, dancing himself to death.

MacMillan’s version has no Russian connotations but presents a universal tribalistic ambience, though the sets and costumes of Australian Sydney Nolan hint of aboriginal roots. Though I personally prefer the richness of the ‘original’ version, I have to admit that the sight of 46 primordial creatures in unisex leotards of burnt orange and brown, with Kabuki whitened faces, bald heads or sporting horse-tail tresses, all leaping and pounding in collective frenzy towards the dramatic climax, was electrifying.