Asphodel Meadows, Royal Opera House, London

An evening, or rather two-thirds of an evening, of rarest pleasure with the Royal Ballet on Wednesday, but the rest of it – Mats Ek’s interminably fatuous Carmen – was despicable.

The first cause for delight was the choreographic debut on the main stage by Liam Scarlett (aged 24 and a member of the company) announcing a talent for making dances of true classical style, musically apt, and assured. An added joy was the return of Christopher Wheeldon’s Electric Counterpoint, a brilliant capriccio proposing the most intriguing adventures in ways of showing and perceiving dance.

But pride of place must go to Scarlett for a creation, Asphodel Meadows, that merits its place without apologies for youth or inexperience. The score is Poulenc’s double piano concerto, music of elegance, fizzing energies, manic changes of mood and irresistible charm. Its three movements are led by Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather, Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside, and Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera, all splendid, with an attendant group of seven couples.

And what they do is what the music does. There is somewhere an argument hinting at an underworld, an afterlife, its title taken from a poem by CW James, which I found easy to ignore. What we see is dance sprung from its score, cleanly shaped, suggesting that Scarlett has a sense of formal integrity: he has looked at MacMillan choreography, yet with a sure sense of his own gifts.

Patternings for the attendant group are handsome, stated without fuss; writing for the three leading couples is imaginative, fluently set in its music, albeit Poulenc’s references to his own world are too varied to capture entirely. What delighted me was the sensitivity with which Scarlett coped with the score’s changes of mood or metre: the dance is its companion. Here is a notable debut.

The work is, inexplicably, laden with hyperactive design by John MacFarlane – a setting like some monstrous barcode, intermittently obscured by black screens – and costuming of stupefying dowdiness.

About Wheeldon’s fascinating Electric Counterpoint and the Ek monstrosity (made watchable only by admirable performances from Thomas Whitehead and Bennet Gartside) I hope to report next week.

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