The Royal Ballet’s triple bill, which opened on Tuesday, sent me out into the night with mixed feelings. The first piece was Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, a one-act “skating” ballet created in 1937. William Chappell’s designs are as charming as ever – Japanese lanterns, a frozen lake, a twilit forest beyond – and the ballet is a fine company showpiece. Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell bring a lovely romanticism to the pas de deux, Marcelino Sambé dashes off the principal variations with throwaway virtuosity, and Yuhui Choe and Anna Rose O’Sullivan make light work of the tricky entrée, the former whipping off her fouettés with clockwork precision and a cool smile, the latter needle-sharp in her circuit of posé and attitude turns.
More cold weather in Winter Dreams, Kenneth MacMillan’s response to Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, set to music by Tchaikovsky. Itziar Mendizabal is the spinsterish Olga, Marianela Nuñez is Masha, trapped in a loveless marriage to Kulygin (Gary Avis), and Yasmine Naghdi is Irina, the youngest of the three. Exiled to a provincial town far from Moscow, they live lives of genteel desperation. Enter a company of soldiers, led by the jaded, married Vershinin (Thiago Soares), with whom Masha starts a hopeless affair.
MacMillan’s choreography for the sisters is quietly expressive, and beautifully executed by Mendizabal, Nuñez and Naghdi. Avis brings an agonised pathos to Kulygin, and the airless melancholy of the household is perfectly conveyed by Peter Farmer’s set, in which the curtains are always drawn, and day and night blur imperceptibly. Other roles are too sketchily drawn to make much sense. Vershinin is a handsome cipher, without enough dramatic meat on the bone for Soares to get his teeth into. Audience reactions were mixed. I would have enjoyed Robert Clark’s lustrous piano playing more had I not had to contend with the loud snoring of the man two seats away (surely audible from the stage) who woke as the curtain descended and fruitily declaimed that “That was a bloody long one!”
Audience interventions reached a peak in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert (1956). Clark was playing Chopin this time, and had to compete with several ring tones, one persisting for minutes. Mid-ballet, the woman behind me started to hum. That jaunty rum-ti-tum that tells of British philistinism at its most floridly entitled. This was particularly annoying because the music is by far the best thing about The Concert, a soi-disant comedy that is supposed to be frightfully funny, but isn’t. The dancers give it their best shot but the repetitive stream of ballet “jokes” (face-pulling, silly walks on pointe, dancers colliding, etc) is frankly pretty woeful.
This is my final review as the Observer’s dance critic. I’ve been in the post for 14 years now, and it’s been a pleasure and privilege to write for you, but it’s time for a new voice. Should I sign off on a less waspish note? Perhaps, but while I love ballet, believe in it, and happily succumb to its magic, I despair at its complacency and inward, retrogressive gaze. Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience? Where are the women in creative power roles? Where’s the vision? The art form must renew itself, or die. I’ll be watching.