Les Rendezvous / The Dream / Rhapsody

Frederick Ashton
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Listing details and ticket info...

Francesca Haywood, Titania, The Dream Credit: Tristam Kenton
Reece Clarke and Marianela Nuñez, The Dream Credit: Tristam Kenton
Taisuke Nakao and Anna Rose O'Sullivan, Rhapsody Credit: Tristam Kenton

The Royal Ballet offers a glorious evening of pure classical ballet with an ‘English’ twist, launching a four-year global celebration of the late great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, honouring his work over 120 years after his birth.

A pioneer of 20th century ballet, Ashton’s choreography developed the distinctive classical Royal Ballet technique that we are familiar with today and put English ballet on the map. In his creations, Ashton’s images are divine clusters of movement, showing off incredible, technically precise footwork, sheer virtuosity and lots of humour. Through Ashton, we have inherited a herculean output of over 100 ballets across several decades, and tonight we are fortunate to experience three of them.

The Royal Ballet embraces such a challenge with a dainty, light-hearted expression of the steps and large doses of tongue-in-cheek performability. Watching the works unfold is like drinking tea from a fine bone china cup, with the company resplendent in every detail. Elegant, yet with incisive intention of movement, the dancers glide across the stage with a flick of a wrist, sashaying in and out of intricate formations, echoing Ashton's choreographic values to the core.

Le Rendevous, one of his earliest ballets from 1933 with a redesign by Jasper Conran, is set in a park where a group of friends meet in front of a set of wrought iron gates. It’s all buttercup yellow tule and fresh-cut floral garlands framing the ballerinas’ heads in a pleasingly elegant and frothy canvas, as if diving into a Fragonard painting. Dancers weave in and out of delicate patterns proffering floating arms to the audience and glimpses of arched backs in beautiful épaulement, and the movement feels playful and festive.

Marianela Nuñez is magnificent as she twirls effortlessly around her stately counterpart, Reece Clarke in her romantic, calf-length, creamy tutu. Dancers make it look easy, but it’s actually a complex web of quick beats and fast-paced moves, then brought to beautifully framed, pictorial stillness.

The Dream is one of Ashton’s masterpieces, transforming the complex Shakespearean story into a pitch-perfect piece, distilling the story into a simply misty and magical setting, with effortlessly comic choreographic detail, dripping in musicality, mirroring perfectly the gesturally romantic score of Felix Mendelssohn with accompanying choir.

This is Ashton’s last ballet (1964), and it was premièred to mark the 80th birthday of the Queen Mother, performed by the legendary Royal Ballet stars Antony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley as the original Oberon and Titania. Dowell has coached the principals, bringing a direct line of authenticity to performance.

When Marcelino Sambé as Oberon strides out, taking the stage with an arrogant glare and green, gold crown, his presence and jawline strike a chord similar to archival footage of Dowell in the role, partly designed to highlight his incredible technique, literally changing the face of ballet for male dancers.

Sambé is a more muscular, solid Oberon, showing off athletic spins and peacock pride, fighting back his elusive Titania. Francesca Hayward is predictably an impish yet regal Titania. Joshua Junker makes a comedic Bottom and handles the ass’s head brilliantly. Tonight, it’s Daichi Ikarashi’s whirlwind Puck who grabs centre stage, with his superhuman spins, syncopated leaps, huge elevation and comedy fuelled performance that sees the audience laugh out joyously in response to his misdemeanours.

Then, in a wistful move that marks the passing of time, the piece ends with ballet greats Dowell and Sibley taking a curtain call alongside the new cast, passing the baton in an emotional bow.

Rhapsody is another neoclassical masterpiece, with beautifully crafted tableau moments framed in peachy light with Greek pillars as a backdrop, the choreography sublimely shifting between adagio and allegro, while Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini draws out a highly romantic theme, a huge part of this, as does the execution of a good cast.

Anna Rose O'Sullivan as the principle is effortlessly floaty and precise in her delivery of steps, but she consistently stays neat within boundaries, not allowing herself to get carried away. Her performance is still a delightful and lightly brushed presence, while Taisuke Nakao is an absolute fireball in a virtuoso debut performance as he feels his way through the choreography, responding with great expressivity and musicality in a flurry of intricate beats with fast paced jumps.

Tonight is a fitting tribute to one of ballet's great creators, and, without Ashton, the art form as we know it through the dancers of the Royal Ballet may look entirely different.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?