REVIEW Dennis Chang Les Patineurs / Tales of Beatrix Potter ROYAL BALLET, ROYAL OPERA HOUSE As is their custom, the artsshy television executives packed bumper ballet coverage into Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On three different channels on Christmas Day alone, we had the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, Darcey Bussell's farewell and a flyon-the-wall documentary on New York City Ballet's visit to St Petersburg's Mariinslcy Theatre. I have yet to comprehend the seasonal programming logic (especially the epic Shakespearean tragedy that came on exactly as the country tucked into its collective Christmas turkey), but one ought to be grateful for the gold dust scattered among the interminable soap operas. I was excited to re-live the memorable night of Bussell's final performance on the Covent Garden stage, not only for her searing appearance in Macmillan's Song of the Earth, but also for the opportunity to see Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations, a serenely beautiful ballet that featured in the same evening.
It would be melodramatic to call it "fateful-, but rising star Steven McRae danced in Symphonic Variations on the same night that the Royal Ballet's most brilliant star was finally retiring. Merely 21 years old, the flame-haired Australian has ooh-ed and ah-ed audiences ever since he joined the company in 2004. He really has it all: temperament, sensitivity, musicality, charisma. and a platinum technique that matches Carlos Acosta in amplitude and Johan Kobborg in polish. But unlike Acosta, whose athletic feats come drenched in Latin testosterone, or Kobborg, whose cleanness refracts a certain Scandinavian aloofness, McRae's brand of dynamism is loose and fancy free.
That's not to say he isn't an intense and gripping performer, but you get the feeling that this is a chap who is willing to try anything. In his latest outing as the "blue skater" in Ashton's Les Patineurs, he strutted around the stage like a peacock, relishing every second of attention as the capacity audience roared with approval. The blue skater is the show off, the heart-breaking bad boy who winks at every girl that comes his way. McRae spun, twirled, leaped and uncoiled in midair; each breathtaking stunt was delivered with a cheeky smile to finish. Dating from 1937. this utterly enchanting ballet is set in an outdoor skating pavilion where skaters of varying abilities and dispositions slide in and out of 10 exquisite vignettes. The elegance of the skate champs in white contrasted with the earnest virtuosity of the Salvation Army head girls and the occasional clumsiness of the passers-by. Accompanied by Meyerbeer waltzes and marches, Les Patineurs is a prime example of Ashton's uncanny ability to mould characters and convey nuanced emotions through pure movement.
The coupling for this wintry delight of a ballet was Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter, yet another tour de force in characterisation, except made 10 times more difficult because each dancer's head and upper body is hidden under a mask and a furry animal costume. When the face is covered everything else suddenly counts for much more. The queen, in more senses than one, of Mrs Potter's menagerie is undoubtedly Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. By turns touching and hilariously campy, the hedgehog's mincing shuffle recalls Widow Simone's clog dance from La fille mat Gardee and the benign ugly sister from Cinderella. Ashton created the role for himself in the original television production more than 30 years ago and it was heartening to see Jonathan Howells taking on the hip-wiggling mantle of the old master.
Yes, Tom Thumb and Flunca Munca's shenanigans went on a bit too long. as did Pigling Bland's odyssey to discover Pig-Wig, but Ashton's choreography for the various animals is a true marvel. Most astonishing of all are the different levels at which the ballet can be appreciated: lavish pageantry for the children, nostalgic whimsy for the adults, and fun, enigmatic quotations for the anoraks. John Lanchbery very naughtily steals Minkus's music for Don Quixote (specifically Dulcinea's variations) for Jemima's virtuoso waddle around the stage. She then bourrees sideways off the stage with flapping swan arms exactly as Odette does at the end of Act Two of Swan Lake.
The seasonal feel-good ballets will give way in February to some of the most austere dances ever created. The Royal Ballet's next mixed bill features Kenneth Macmillan's Different Drummer, based on Georg Biichner's play Woyzeck, which tells the story of a deranged soldier who murders his unfaithful wife and then commits suicide. On the same programme is Macmillan's theatrical Rite of Spring, which makes for a fascinating comparison with Pina Bausch's take on the same seminal music by Stravinsky. Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. which will arrive soon at Sadler's Wells, is not for the fainthearted or the well-coiffured. Expecl primal screams, wet frocks, nudity, and mud on the floor— lots of it.