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This is the way the season ends – not with a bang but a whimper. Closing its 75th anniversary year, the Royal Ballet has mounted a programme to honour its chief choreographers.

It is in this triple bill that Darcey Bussell will take her farewell of ballet on Friday night, as the Woman in Song of the Earth. Of this sad event (which is to be televised on BBC2) more at a later date.

I report here on Monday night’s showing of Ninette de Valois’s 1937 Checkmate, with its great score from Arthur Bliss; Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, his declaration about a national style of classic dance as the Royal Ballet entered Covent Garden in 1946; and MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, that contemplation of mortality.

If the performance by the second cast was anything to go by, we are sabotaging our balletic heritage. Song of the Earth was superbly done, but Checkmate suffered from under- playing and Symphonic Variations looked muddled.

Beautiful images were barely sketched, and the men’s lack of academic finesse was matched by the provincial manners of the women, Sarah Lamb the honourable exception.

Checkmate, which is a potent ballet even after 70 years, demands that force, that emotional and physical vitality that so characterised Dame Ninette’s choreography.

The ensemble of chess pieces was dutiful but no more, The Red King dim in manner and only Marianela Nuñez as the Black Queen found the right psychic and dynamic weight for her role and a properly icy sensuality. Johannes Stepanek’s Red Knight was on a work-experience trip and the central duel between light and dark went for nothing.

It was Song of the Earth that restored my confidence. The performance was heart-searching, with Leanne Benjamin – that Royal Ballet treasure – all feeling as the Woman, the role completely and beautifully understood, and Valery Hristov a sincere interpreter as the Man.

Edward Watson was the Messenger, giving the role that intensity of physical presence through his phrasing and shaping of the dance that brings new force to MacMillan’s choreography.

For Mara Galeazzi, bouquets – not just for her exquisite dancing in the Third Song on Monday but also for a season during which her interpretations, notably in Mayerling, have been memorably fine.


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