Jewels, Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Ballet opened its 65th season at Covent Garden on Tuesday night. Not necessarily an important anniversary, but it will bring the close of Monica Mason’s decade as director of our national ballet next summer. To recall the company as it was 10 years ago, after the dreadful year in which Ross Stretton’s directorship had reduced the troupe to a confused and uncertain state – the Queen’s Golden Jubilee gala remains a nightmare for those who sat incredulously through it – is to recognise how much Dame Monica has achieved in re-invigorating the company and its identity.

Tuesday brought Balanchine’s Jewels, a performance in many ways as alert and sensitive as one could wish. I revere Jewels: in it we see so much about Balanchine’s genius, about his understanding of his score, his command of the academic dance so that he could explore what it could mean and could achieve.

So the opening Emeralds uses Fauré theatre scores to make dance that is (like its music) subtle in emotion, elegant in expression, a green thought in a green place. It was danced with entire and melting grace by Tamara Rojo – in a role made for that most musical of ballerinas Violette Verdy, to whom I have been devoted since I first saw her. (Mme Verdy will, I hope, excuse this late declaration of passion.) No less eloquent, and phrasing like an angel, Leanne Benjamin, living in her music, drawing exquisite shapes with it.

Then Stravinsky and Rubies, a blaze of muscular wit, of streetwise manners, of laser-cut dance shaped by New York and its take-no-prisoners energies. The Royal Ballet’s cast dashed and flashed, took on the score’s identity, and Sarah Lamb and Zenaida Yanowsky were its splendid focus. And so, in super-human and unbeatable fashion, was Steven McRae, riding on the crest of the dance with an insouciant mastery. Tremendous.

The concluding Diamonds I thought needed cleaning, polishing. Here we have Balanchine evoking the formal grandeurs of Petipa and Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s Polish symphony (shorn of its first movement). It is the most difficult of these jewels to display, and it demands Petersburg’s manner to make the best sense – as the Mariinsky Ballet has shown us. The present cast, led by Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather, do their eager, ingratiating best, but they seem ill at ease: the lineage, the grand titles, the great families, are not theirs. From Valeriy Ovsyanikov and the orchestra, admirable readings of the scores.

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