Three Short Works: Serenade; L'Invitation au voyage; Theme and Variations

The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2008)

The Master is back, again. The Mariinsky resurrect Balanchine's Diaghilev ballets at Sadler's Wells, and now the Royal Ballet bring us his 1935 Serenade, the first ballet (his first plotless work) he created in the US for American dancers, and his much-loved Theme and Variations (1947), both elegant and dynamic interpretations of Tchaikovsky's music.

Wonderful musical choreography that has stood the test of time - Balanchine demonstrating here it is, this is what ballet was, and still is, about. Ballet as it was in Imperial days, but now we do it even faster, and better - a test for each new generation of dancers.

Well, the Royal Ballet pass the test but not with flying colours. I guess it must be my age - but where are the ballet stars, the larger than life personalities that transform good dancing into performances that take one's breath away? Baryshnikov was a firecracker in Balanchine's neo-classical Theme and Variations, though even he admitted that he found the choreography taxing on his legs.

And it is fiendishly taxing - fast showpieces for the dancers, demanding strict control and power - difficult beats and very little rest.

The Royal Ballet do it well, no doubt about that, but not well enough - no character, no risk-taking, no flying without a safety net. Where's the life, the losing oneself in the choreography? Reserve and harmony yes, clarity yes, but no dazzling brilliance.

Tamara Rojo's rock-solid party-piece balances are amazing, and Federico Bonelli attacks the difficult continuous stream of demi-plié and plié, seven double turns alternating with pirouettes ending with a multiple pirouette to strict musical timing, but they both, concentrating fiercely, look as if they are taking an exam.

Marianela Nuñez, Lauren Cuthbertson, and Mara Galeazzi do better in Balanchine's serene Serenade, especially Marianela Nuñez, who shows vivacity and flair. The three soloists - three unassailable goddesses - stand out in a regiment of seventeen statuesque females, regal in pale blue leotards and gossamer skirts (design by Barbara Karinska) against a simple pale blue backcloth (lit by John B. Read).

A women's ballet - the men there only to serve them, or raise them on pedestals - from Balanchine the lover of women. And an ensemble ballet (indebted to Les Sylphides) that gives the corps, constantly flowing in shifting stage patterns (for one brief moment I incongruously and sacrilegiously thought 'barn dance' but that passed), a chance to shine: basic ballet steps collectively stunning in their precision, and beautiful arms, soft but dramatic arms.

Malheureusement, Michael Corder's L'Invitation au voyage does not pass the test of time: in fact his 1982 ballet feels more dated than the Balanchine. Framed by Balanchine's ballets, it is un voyage to a very strange place - part art nouveau, part baroque, part classical mythological antiquity - realised in Yolanda Sonnabend's fantastic other-worldly design.

Inspired by five orchestral songs by Henri Duparc set to elegiac love poems by Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Gautier, and Robert de Bonnières, Corder's ballet reflects both Duparc's music (performed on stage by Harriet Williams as part of the dance) and the symbolic imagery of the verse, romantic, idealized, exotic, tragic, and celestial.

Marianela Nuñez, Leanne Benjamin, Melissa Hamilton, and Federico Bonelli (in cloche hat - echoes of Le Spectre de la rose - also based on a poem by Gautier) respond seriously to a ballet which if it were film would now have a cult following for its fantasy-world, gold-lamé bucolic kitsch - Marie-Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess

In rep 28 Oct - 10 Nov

Reviewer: Vera Liber