Ashton Ballets, Royal Opera House, London

A programme of Ashton ballets arrived on the Covent Garden stage on Tuesday night, and barely touched the boards. From the master-choreographer of such seminal works as Scènes de ballet and Symphonic Variations, of Daphnis and Chloe and Ondine and so much grandly more, this bill was chronically light-minded and, I would venture, frivolous.

La Valse is no great choreographic shakes – though the orchestra under Emmanuel Plasson, a welcome newcomer, was on fine form – and the succeeding Meditation from Thais, the anaemic Voices of Spring duet, and the two Monotones trios make for a low-calorie diet. They propose Ashton as pastry-cook, and though structure is clever and dance-ideas are cunning, this programming is papery, ill-advised.

At a time when the Royal Ballet urgently needs to reassert the rule of classic form, a native style – all a vital part of its Ashton inheritance – this light-minded view of a great choreographer diminishes his significance. Not, indeed, that the closing Marguerite and Armand is much improvement on artistic terms. A vehicle, made for Fonteyn and Nureyev at their most obvious, and cursed with a supernally tiresome orchestration of the Liszt piano sonata, it bears revival because in Tamara Rojo (here making her farewell to the Royal Ballet) and Sergei Polunin (superbly gifted, and lately resident in the headlines) it finds two tremendous interpreters.

Their performances on this occasion had something of the predictable. Rojo cannot put a beautifully-arched foot wrong, and mopes and coughs tremendously. (That she is an ideal interpreter in Ondine, one of Ashton’s greatest works and languishing unperformed, is a further irony about this programme.) Polunin – and I have never seen a danseur more superbly or naturally gifted from his very first steps on stage – returns to the Royal Ballet with his talent seemingly unblemished by all the tattooed fatuities that have been attributed to him. His is a beautiful and rarissime gift: as Armand he makes entire sense of a flimsy role and is wonderful.

And when, I wonder, is the Royal Ballet going to do the decent thing by the “Founder Choreographer” whom it blazons on its title, and stage regular and serious Ashton programmes?

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