One of the odder aspects of dance-going in our time is the box office evidence of public affection for ancient monuments – for those three-act monoliths that our national ballet adopted and adapted from imperial St Petersburg.
We cannot blame Ninette de Valois, who acquired the best of them (Swan Lake et al) when her infant Royal Ballet company and its audience needed to be educated about ballet’s past. Final justification came when two choreographers whom she nurtured – Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan – naturalised the manner: our national ballet had come into its own at Covent Garden.
But a deleterious effect became clear when audiences started to believe that “three-acts are better than three one-acts”, and around the world a proliferation of wizened and foolish “classics” numbed public taste. The result has been the neglect of one-act ballets, in which many choreographers have shown the range of their talent, and in which audiences might delight in the variety and richness of classical dance.
The Royal Ballet boasts a grand treasury of short ballets, covering a century of creativity. Not, alas, that we see these with any regularity. So cheers and cheers again for the current double bill of Ashton’s The Dream, that enchanting confection of Shakespeare, Mendelssohn and dance as lightly made as its score, and of MacMillan’s noble realisation of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. Both works show the Royal Ballet’s real qualities far better than any of the care-worn “classics” that clog the programming.
The Dream was happily realised in Alina Cojocaru’s wilful Titania, in Valentino Zucchetti’s ebullient, alert Puck, in the joyfully misled quartet of lovers. In Steven McRae’s Oberon we saw dancing of dazzling skill and superb authority: as with all McRae’s performances, the blaze of technique is matched by the blaze of dramatic and physical intelligence.
With Song of the Earth, our national ballet is at its most serious and profoundly expressive. MacMillan matches Mahler’s contemplation of last things, and in the austerity of his means contrives to reveal the resonances of the music’s concerns. It is a piercing work of art, gloriously done by Tamara Rojo as the Woman – her feelings concentrated in the ravishing outlines of her dance – by Carlos Acosta, potent in his stillness, and by Rupert Pennefather in a debut appearance: trusting the steps fully, the role will live as MacMillan intended.
A glorious evening at the ballet – words not always to be found on these pages.