I never wanted it to end: Royal Ballet’s Triple Bill and Fonteyn celebration reviewed

Margot Fonteyn: A Celebration
Royal Opera House

The Firebird / A Month in the Country / Symphony in C
Royal Opera House

The trouble with taking my mother to the ballet is that on the way home she will always say: ‘Well, that was wonderful, darling.’ A thoughtful pause. ‘But of course I saw Nureyev and Fonteyn dance the parts and nothing will ever be the same.’ And so on the Central Line after the Royal Ballet’s Margot Fonteyn: A Celebration, I waited for the sorrowful ‘But…’ It never came. ‘That was wonderful,’ she said. And it was.

Dame Margot Fonteyn DBE, prima ballerina assoluta, the company’s patron saint en pointe, wasn’t a ghost at the feast, but a guiding light as Marianela Nunez, Natalia Osipova, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi danced twelve of her greatest roles from the Firebird to Juliet. Darcey Bussell returned to dance the scene-stealing slow-mo ‘Tango’ from Façade. My god, she’s still got it, my god, she’s still gorgeous. The evening’s swansong was a film, projected to holographic intensity, of Fonteyn dancing Frederick Ashton’s Salut d’amour, and taking Ashton’s arm to leave the stage. Not a dry eye from stalls to gods. The evening was as much a tribute to Ashton as to Fonteyn. Eight of the ‘divertissements’ were Ashton ballets: Nocturne, The Wise Virgins, Birthday Offering, Ondine, Sylvia, Daphnis and Chloë, Façade and Apparition.

While there were weaker moments – Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Romany Pajdak lost and forlorn in Nocturne and The Wise Virgins, Mayara Magri leading an Amazons’ aerobics class in Sylvia, Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Alexander Campbell barely kindling in Daphnis and Chloë – there were many more performances that not only held a candle to Fonteyn, but lit up the whole chandelier. In ‘The Rose Adage’ from The Sleeping Beauty, Nunez danced Princess Aurora with a smile like the dawn. Her Botticelli face, her Hellenistic lines, her lightness and loveliness, joy and softness, are wonderful to watch. Sarah Lamb and Fumi Kaneko, who gets better and better, less tentative, more exultant, were models of precision and flickering grace in Birthday Offering, while Francesca Hayward was a slinky Ondine conjuring ripples and raindrops and silver light on fast-flowing water. Osipova, who was injured earlier in the week, betrayed not a wince in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet with guest artist David Hallberg. Osipova plays the balcony scene carried away with girlish expectance and ecstatic lifts. Theirs is the most convincing teenage snog I’ve seen on stage. In Apparitions, Cuthbertson was sweeping and imperious, dancing up a storm in tulle with Matthew Ball, fleet and elegant, handsome and expansive, as her frock-coated suitor. In Le Corsaire, Naghdi was silk to Vadim Muntagirov’s gunpowder. They both stumbled (the evening felt under-rehearsed) and both recovered wonderfully.

On Tuesday night, Naghdi had danced The Firebird, a role made famous by Fonteyn. It was an inspired performance: quivering, nervy, frantic, somewhere between flames and feathers. She overdid the staring, startled eyes, but when captured by the Tsarevich (Edward Watson) she was like an outraged hen set upon by a fox. Brilliant. The pleasure of the production comes from seeing Natalia Goncharova’s original sets and costumes. They don’t at all come alive at Tate Modern’s retrospective (until 8 September), but on stage, in over-the-top profusion, her MC Hammer balloon pants, her veils and catsuits, ocelot prints and jesters’ caps, harlequin waistcoats and velvet fezes are sumptuous. Gary Avis, having a right old ham as the Immortal Kostchi, wears a black velvet cloak with a built-in hunchback. The only misstep is the Tsarvich’s awful Christmas elf get-up.

After Goncharova’s explosion of onion domes, the eye comes to rest on Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs for Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country: somewhere between Fragonard and a box of Ladurée macarons. Nunez and Hayward are fierce and complex as Natalia Petrovna and her young ward Vera, both in love with the gauche young tutor Beliaev (Matthew Ball). When Natalia slaps Vera, the stalls reel. Nunez, dancing Natalia for the first time with pathos and infinite nuance, is inspired. You feel her come alive in Beliaev’s arms. With her husband Yslaev (Christopher Saunders) she is vague and distracted. Nunez tells you with a wilting wrist, a barely recoiling twist that Natalia no longer loves him.

George Balanchine’s Symphony in C was a champagne coupe performance. Fumi Kaneko (making a radiant debut in the place of the injured Osipova), Sarah Lamb, Yuhui Choe and Francesca Hayward danced Balanchine’s fiendish, superhuman, almost cruel choreography with effortless grace and crystalline command. I never wanted it to end.

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