Three Ballets, Royal Opera House, London

The ways of public taste are hard to fathom. I am told that ballet triple bills are “unpopular”, and certainly the current Royal programme of Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations and Gloria has been discounted for dance-lovers. Yet it offers a commanding portrait of our national ballet, with magnificent music and superb choreography speaking of the cultural life of the nation through the works of three generations of British creators.

It is not, of course and thank heaven, Swan Lake – which the troupe dances indifferently – and there’s the rub. Short of abandoning such antique magnets for a public that believes Big is Best, Covent Garden seems nonplussed and indecisive when faced with audience myopia.

This triple bill is tremendous. It touches the spirit in MacMillan’s Gloria, revenants from the Somme and their womenfolk evoked through Poulenc’s score (and how fine was Anna Devin as the soprano soloist), and with the uniquely gifted Edward Watson tearing the dance from his soul.

Enigma Variations reminds us of the lost and Edwardian world (destroyed by Gloria’s war) that lives so touchingly in Elgar’s score, in Ashton’s ever-sensitive dances, in Julia Trevelyan Oman’s inspired design. Here are dramatic performances – Christopher Saunders as Elgar and Christina Arestis as his wife, Bennet Gartside as Jaeger, notably moving – that tell of the company’s central identity as a troupe of superb dance-actors.

And, to begin the evening in the best way, Liam Scarlett’s first major work for this stage. We must beware of laurels too soon, but – to hell with restraint – I think Scarlett a most impressive talent. He uses ballet’s language with sensitivity, real musical grace, and not a little originality. He is a choreographer to carry the torch on from Ashton and MacMillan, and Asphodel Meadows responds to Poulenc’s two-piano concerto with unfailing wit and invention. The sole problem for me is the loathsome costuming and bar-code set from John Macfarlane. Poulenc wrote this music, which colours every step of Scarlett’s dances, in 1932, when Schiaparelli and Mme Grès were making fashion and Art Deco flourished. The dance lives in its score: its present glum appearance should be re-considered.

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