Royal Ballet, winter season 2012/13

The great dance critic Richard Buckle once famously reviewed a winter season by remarking that each Christmas brings us “one Nutcracker closer to death”, and certainly it is possible to note the passing of the years by watching the Swans migrate, then the Firebirds.

Kevin O’Hare has now seen his first full season as company director at the Royal Ballet, and, although much of the repertoire was, of necessity, planned before he took over the reins, it was possible to begin to discern the outlines of his aspirations, perhaps most fully as the season reached its final stages.

The highlight was 24 Preludes, a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, the man currently saddled with the title “Saviour of Classical Dance”. He may or may not be, but he is certainly a choreographer of greatness, and in this, his first work for the Royal Ballet (indeed, his first work in Britain), he has made a piece that will surely become a company staple. Ratmansky usually works intensively with selected companies, his knowledge of company style and the strengths of individual dancers informing each new piece. Here he lacked that in-depth knowledge, and his readings of his eight performers – Leanne Benjamin, Alina Cojocaru, Sarah Lamb and Zenaida Yanowsky, Valeri Hristov, Steven McRae, Edward Watson and Rupert Pennefather – sometimes seems superficial, concentrating on their most obvious qualities – Cojocaru’s quicksilver brightness, Watson’s extreme extensions, Pennefather’s rather stolid mien – instead of mining for something deeper.

Yet within these parameters, Ratmansky has nevertheless created a true dance world, investing a series of social meetings and turnings away into a fully formed emotional landscape.

The formality of structure suggests a Chekhovian grouping, reflected in the minimalist rippled background (beautifully lit by Neil Austin, and presumably also designed by him, although that remains uncredited), which transforms itself from stormy sky to shimmering aquaeous surface to Ilya Repin-like greenery.

By turns gentle, tumultuous and charming, Ratmansky’s choreographic invention never fails, moving from an opening section of turns and sighing falls, through a pas de trois where the tall Zenaida Yanowsky does the lifting of the smaller Steven McRae. The piece is about performance, as much as it is performance, with several tongue-in-cheek reminders that Chopin’s Preludes have a dance heritage: Les Sylphides is gestured at, and when the four men return at the end, searching for their women, they arrive in formation like the Wilis in Giselle, hunting their prey. More obviously the linked-dance format refers back to Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, and Ratmansky’s own Russian Seasons. That latter drama of elemental life and renewal is here replicated more decorously, in a somewhat muted manner – an “English Seasons”, perhaps.

The piece is certainly not perfect. Ratmansky has lumbered himself with Jean Françaix’s orchestration of the Preludes Op 28, which is not only uninspiring, but the complete set is theatrically too long. The entries and exits, forcibly tied to the demands of the Preludes, thus become an important motif – 24 Preludes, that’s forty-six entrances and exits in forty-one minutes. Even with a choreographer as fecund as Ratmansky, it risks becoming slightly risible.

Despite these reservations, it may very well be that this is the best work the Royal has commissioned since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. There have been works taken into the repertory in this time that are its equal, but none that has been commissioned by the company. For this alone, O’Hare’s debut season is worthy of praise.

Some of the other programmes are less sure-footed. A programme dedicated to the work of the Royal’s founder-choreographer, Frederick Ashton, marked the quarter-century since his death. But what a puzzling programme it was, made up of what must, with the best will in the world, be called odds and ends. In 1920, Diaghilev rejected Ravel’s La Valse as being entirely unsuitable for dance. Choreographers have since taken that as a challenge: Nijinska used the music in the 1920s, and Ashton and Balanchine set themselves the task in the 1950s. Both the latter, it must be said, prove Diaghilev’s shrewdness: Ravel’s flickering score, shifting between heartbeat-regular rhythms underneath and ghostly, evanescent skeins of sound on the surface, allows no purchase for dancing. At the time, Ashton turned in a dutiful gala piece, but its continued appearance over half a century later is a mystery.

In fact, all of O’Hare’s choices for this memorial programme are pièces d’occasion: the “Meditation” from Thaïs and “white” Monotones are also gala confections, Voices of Spring is an insert pas de deux for a production of Die Fledermaus, and Marguerite et Armand a celebrity vehicle for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

Monotones is, simply, a masterpiece. Satie’s music obviously captivated Ashton, and after the white section to Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, he created a “green” section to the first Gnossienne as a prelude. Performed by Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Edward Watson, both the bouncier green and the more linear white were danced with the detached, eerie gravitas that this otherworldly, almost lunar, piece demands.

The remaining works on the programme, however, are, on a sliding scale, anything from charming gala lollipops (Voices of Spring, with Yuhui Choe and the young Alexander Campbell making enjoyable, if not profound, debuts) to chemical candy floss (“Meditation” from Thaïs) right down to unadulterated saccharine (Marguerite et Armand). Why a choreographer who produced more than six dozen works over six decades should have his career represented by a few pieces of ephemera in a memorial programme is barely comprehensible.

That Marguerite et Armand was revived as a star vehicle, is clear. Tamara Rojo, longtime principal, gave her final performances in one of Fonteyn’s last roles, the dying Dame aux Camélias, while the young Nureyev’s role was taken by Sergei Polunin. He is Ukrainian, not Russian, but otherwise the offstage parallels hold: Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union to the Royal, while Polunin fled in the opposite direction, abandoning the Royal mid-rehearsal one day, to turn up later in Moscow’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre. O’Hare has lured him back for a few guest appearances, one assumes as an overture to finding him a more permanent place as a principal guest artist, and this can only be commended: the Royal is certainly poorer for his absence.

If Rojo was pleased to bow out in this role, and Polunin found in the Nureyev comparisons a kindly welcome, well and good. But the ballet, as a ballet, is a bore. With dated designs by Cecil Beaton (the set an etiolated sub-Giacometti cage, the costumes either a series of camp embarrassments for the soloists, or a diva-ish three-costume-changes-in-thirty-three-minutes for the lead), the choreography would have to be stellar to survive, and it simply isn’t. The ageing Fonteyn was by then understandably limited, and while Rojo’s powerful sense of drama carries her audience with her, she has, in reality, little to do apart from burning looks, a few bourrées and a lot of falling to her knees. Polunin’s Armand is required to make several of the dashing runs (one complete with cape fluttering dramatically behind) so beloved of Nureyev – I half-expected him to cry “Ta-da!” as he appeared – but Ashton’s choreographic invention for him too seems curiously limited.

Another evening, another memorial to past Royal choreographers, this time an evening of works by MacMillan, twenty years after his early death. Here old favourites and a revived curiosity sit more neatly together. Concerto, an early piece to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, is impossible not to love with its sprightly outer movements flanking a profound central meditation on the nature of classicism. Las Hermanas, an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, could not be more different: a distillation of how fear and jealousy corrode and destroy. Only MacMillan could have revealed without words the icy heart of Lorca’s sexual snakepit.

Created two years later, but far more dated is John Cranko’s Onegin, which has in the past few years become a repertory staple. The work is mundane, but with juicy parts for four principals, it endures. The curious thing about it (particularly performed, as it was this season, in turn with the Royal Opera’s staging of the opera on which it is based) is how at odds the ballet is with both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. Their Onegin is a clever, sensitive man stifled by a society that values neither of these things; Cranko’s Onegin (particularly as played by Stuttgart’s Jason Reilly, stepping in for an injured Johan Kobborg) is a crass boor. He does not reject the love-struck Tatiana, as in the poem, for sensible reasons, and with humanity; no, here he tears her letter into pieces in front of her eyes and throws them at her, pantomime-villain-style. The only redemption from such vulgarity (and it comes as a grace note in a strident evening) is that Cranko allows the possibility of married love. His Gremin and Tatiana genuinely find happiness together. Her renunciation of Onegin, therefore, is less devastating than in Pushkin, not renouncing happiness, but rather accepting that she has found it, just not where she had expected. Alina Cojocaru makes much of this gentle happiness, ably helped by Bennet Gartside as Gremin, now one of the company’s most accomplished character actors, and they bring an evening of melodramatic moustache-twiddling to a touching, quiet close.

Despite these choreographic dinosaurs, in other ways O’Hare seems determined to expand the repertoire across the classical spectrum, which is extremely satisfying. Several pieces make welcome returns: Apollo, in its original, uncut version, had performances of just-tamed ferocity (from Carlos Acosta) or childlike wonder (Federico Bonelli). One of Balanchine’s greatest works, Apollo‘s Olympian distance appears to have put off previous directors, but O’Hare has sensibly scheduled this work from 1928 as the forerunner to contemporary classical dance, opening the programme for Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes and Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum (to Britten’s terrifying Sinfonia da Requiem, which rather defeated him). Another neatly planned evening was one that mixed Jerome Robbins’s In the Night, long absent, with the perennial crowd-pleaser The Firebird and (another inexplicable absence) Raymonda, Act III, a dazzling confection of Glazunov’s oom-pah-ing orchestrations and Petipa’s (aided by Nureyev) Oriental/Russian scenario, all wrapped up by the silver-white splendour of Barry Kay’s Austro-Hungaro-Byzantine romp of a set. (The only one I know routinely greeted by a round of applause when the curtain rises.) Dance companies can live neither by Swan Lakes nor by new choreography alone. O’Hare has confidently displayed an ability to construct the harder-to-promote mixed bills that are the core of any repertory, and with this promising augury, we watch, hopefully, as the Swans return once more to their breeding grounds.