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Scènes de Ballet, A Month in the Country, Rhapsody

Frederick Ashton
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

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Marianela Nuñez and Matthew Ball, A Month in the Country Credit: Tristam Kenton

Three one-act ballets packed full of playfulness, passion and mind-blowing virtuosity make for a spectacular triple-bill treat of underperformed works from the rich archive of Frederick Ashton, showcasing the company through diverse works such as Scènes de Ballet, A Month in the Country and Rhapsody.

Two are abstract gems, whilst A Month in the Country, a grand gestural slice of Russian Romanticism, is the jewel in the crown, promoting the vast scale of Ashton’s works from clean, sharp, pared-back pieces to deep wells of drama and storytelling through movement.

The triple bill opens with Scènes de ballet, from 1948. This is Ashton choreography in its purest modernist form, set to Stravinsky’s staccato score and backed by an architectural set from André Beaurepaire mirroring Futurism. In the words of Ashton on Scènes de ballet, “if God said, 'you have one left'—that would be it.”

The 18 dancers certainly rise to the challenge in a wonderful showpiece for accuracy, creating symmetrical tableaux moments—fan-shaped patterns stopped in time, as if pausing for a photograph, then animated back into life through intricate movement in a geometrically pleasing work echoing high Modernism.

The lynchpin is Sarah Lamb, bejewelled and donned in yellow tutu, achieving high arched, elongated limbs and arms that seem to extend into space, then pulled back with a flick of the wrists in a restrained and elegant turn, paired with Vadim Muntagirov.

Yet it's A Month in the Country—created in 1976, a sweepingly theatrical one-act ballet—that steals the show in an outpouring of highly charged emotion distilled from the words of 19th century Russian author Ivan Turgenev.

Marianela Nuñez as Natalia Petrovna and Matthew Ball as her love interest, Beliaev, dance Ashton’s rich choreography with deeply invested dramatic intensity. Passion flows from the rustling white tulle of Nuñez's tutu. Distraught in love sickness, she collapses, a frilly heap into Beliaev's arms. It's a love game of tug of war when the couple tussle as Nuñez arches her back in ecstasy, then coyly nestles under Ball's significantly larger frame. Ribbons dangling off the end of her tutu serve as stirrups to be pulled in by her lover to stay close, only to be finally released as he lets go, runs offstage, with nothing more a single rose cast at her feet.

The passion is palpable as Nuñez and Ball inhabit their roles with masterful conviction, marking out the beats of Chopin in every sway and swoon, while the opulent Romantic set, all sepias, chandeliers and pastoral views, throw the audience into a 19th century world.

The couple are backed by an expressively dramatic cast maxing the sections of dance mime in exquisitely clear, non-verbal pronunciations. Luca Acri as Natalia’s exuberant son displays impressively playful footwork and acrobatic leaps, while Anna Rose O’Sullivan is a convincing teenage love interest, cast aside for the grander passions of Petrovna and Beliaev.

Rhapsody is an altogether different affair in a sequential flurry of movement and choreographic showpiece for 14 dancers, created in 1980 to mark the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday.

While the arduously athletic male role was originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov, an impossible act to follow, Marcelino Sambé puts in an excellent performance, all whirlwind jetés and bravado, that gains momentum and confidence as the piece unfolds, mirroring the score of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.

Francesca Hayward radiates as half-human, half-other-worldly nymph in her effortless and weightless performance meeting impossibly complex footwork with ease and grace as her elegant body arches upwards only inches away from flight. Paired with Marcelino Sambé, their pas de deux builds in spirited connection as the piece unfolds and physically the couple are perfectly matched between Hayward’s airiness and Sambé’s solidity.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi