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Sixties Swing

The Royal Ballet’s first mixed bill of the 2019/20 season is a snapshot of 1960s British ballet and the polar places it went. Sandwiched between a spare modern creation and a frothy classical revival are bouncy character variations set to a turn-of-the-century orchestral work—slightly mismatched courses, sure, but an interesting snapshot of the company’s mid-century catalogue, plus a chance to see the Royal’s robust solo talent in action.

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “Concerto”/ “Enigma Variations” / “Raymonda Act III”

Place

Royal Opera House, London, UK, October 22, 2019

Words

Sara Veale

Meaghan Grace Hinkis (centre) and Artists of the Royal Ballet in “Concerto” by Kenneth MacMillan. Photograph by Bill Cooper

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Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto” is bright and bracing, a tangerine dream of prickly pointework and understated allegro. On opening night new principal Marcelino Sambé joined Anna Rose O’Sullivan in a jaunty first movement peppered with sparrow-like corps. There was some unsteadiness amid the darting piano keys and tight, flicking choreography, but spry energy—and O’Sullivan’s composed syncopations—prevailed.

Things perked up considerably in the second movement, with Reece Clarke and Lauren Cuthbertson delivering a sweeping pas de deux against a citrus sunset. It’s not a ballet of abandon, but the pair struck some hot-blooded notes with deep pênchés and over-the-head arabesques, bringing dynamic storytelling to this abstract piece. Later came Fumi Kaneko with the tidy precision MacMillan’s snappy steps demand, along with a knack for finding the hang time in sharp, swift turns. Behind her, an ensemble rocketed to heroic effect, urged on by the gallant notes of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Ryoichi Hirano and Sarah Lamb in “Concerto” by Kenneth MacMillan. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

With his 1899 score “Enigma Variations,” the composer Edward Elgar saluted his social circle with affectionate musical sketches. Frederick Ashton’s 1968 ballet animates these character studies with elaborate costuming and springy, expressive dance, drawing in bicycles and flat caps, dignified turns and dizzy tumbles. Where “Concerto” is a zesty sorbet, “Enigma Variations” is a full turkey dinner: rich and laden, its many garnishes jostling for attention. There’s a wistfulness that keeps these set pieces from being too twee, though the more inflated characterisations can grate.

Laura Morera gleamed as the elegant Lady Elgar, while Matthew Ball turned heads with prim, fleet twizzles. Christopher Saunders’ Elgar was mostly reserved, but his saunter with old pal Nimrod was a poignant highlight. It was Itziar Mendizabal who stole the show, though, wafting across the stage like a wraith, her puffy sleeves casting jellyfish ripples. Francesca Hayward was nimble as ever, though her poise feels somewhat wasted on the flighty, babyish Dorabella.

It’s onto dessert with the glittering confection that is “Raymonda,” which Rudolf Nureyev slotted into the company’s rep back in the ’60s. Featured here is Act III of this Petipa showpiece, a pageant of imperial grandeur complete with fur-trimmed hats and Hungarian festivities. (The ballet weds the titular countess and her knight in the court of Hungary’s King Andrew II.) Naturally, divertissements abound, from vibrant character dances to stately solos. The corps have some folksy toe-heel malarkey to contend with, but the act also gifts us divine dashes of petit allegro.

Opening night saw Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb take on the principal roles, pros who looked right at home with triple turns and demanding extensions. Lamb raised the stakes by serving up haughty claps and an ice-queen gaze. Divorced from the bigger ballet, the act has a slightly untethered feel, but it comes into its own as the royal rollicks proceed, building to a grand kaleidoscope of a finale.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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