Royal Ballet triple-bill, Royal Opera House, London, review: Varied and uneven

Zoë Anderson
The Royal Ballet performs Kenneth MacMillan's 'Elite Syncopations': Bill Cooper

It’s certainly a contrast. Putting together works by Wayne McGregor, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan – three of the company’s defining choreographers – this Royal Ballet triple bill is both varied and uneven. It swings from the murky rituals of Obsidian Tear to the swooning drama of Marguerite and Armand, ending with the ragtime party of Elite Syncopations.

Created in 2016, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear is deliberately ambiguous. Its nine male dancers sometimes suggest a drama of initiation and rejection, sometimes shift into abstract movement. Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson dance a muscular duet that hovers on the edge of drama; later Richardson is marked with a swipe of black ink and thrown into a chasm.

There’s a restless quality to McGregor’s choreography, glancing off Esa-Pekka Salonen’s monumental orchestral score. Though a strong cast dance with impressive force, the work wanders, losing focus.

The costumes, chosen by fashion director Katie Shillingford, are another distraction. Using designers from Vivienne Westwood to Gareth Pugh, Shillingford dresses the dancers in a mix of shirtdresses, zip-legged trousers, low-slung boob tubes and arm bands.

Ashton’s 1963 Marguerite and Armand had very clear motivation: to show off the megastar pairing of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. It wasn’t until 2000, when it was revived for Sylvie Guillem, that the work was performed by any other cast. It’s a vehicle, heavy on melodramatic gesture, and needing stars who can bring charisma and point to Ashton’s retelling of the Dame aux Camélias story.

This revival is led by Alessandra Ferri, like Fonteyn a mature ballerina of powerful dramatic presence. As the courtesan making sacrifices for love, she moves with fluid softness and bright intent. Federico Bonelli is a lyrical Armand, touching in his grief.

MacMillan is best known for his dark dramas, but in the 1974 ballet Elite Syncopations he’s having fun. The band is on stage to play music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers. Like the dancers, they’re dressed by Ian Spurling in a riot of stripes, spots and bright colours. The chairs and the disco ball suggest a dancehall, where a succession of numbers let the dancers strut their stuff in buoyant steps and jokes.

Elite, one of the delights of the MacMillan anniversary celebrations earlier this season, had lost a little of its fizz at this performance. It’s still fun, but energy levels could be higher. Sarah Lamb could be more playful with her music, though she makes a glamorous lead. James Hay was dashing in the "Friday Night" rag, while Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer were witty in "The Golden Hours" number.

Until 11 May (rog.org.uk)

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