The Royal Ballet’s summer season has drawn to a close, but on Monday we had the chance to see the company’s Frederick Ashton programme, recorded on the night of Tamara Rojo’s farewell performance in February.

The programme opened with La Valse, to music described by its composer Ravel as “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz”.  Originally choreographed by Ashton’s mentor Bronislava Nijinska, to a score that Diaghilev believed inimical to ballet, the sombre, slightly menacing, lighting obscured the dance too much and this did not work well in a cinema.

Meditation from Thaïs gave us Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov dancing to a piece by Massenet that is believed to have been in the repertory of Anna Pavlova, another of the great influences on Ashton, although not one of her own solos.  Dangerously close to the edge of oriental kitsch, this lovely pas de deux was elevated to a higher emotional level by the dancers’ sincerity as they moved through a series of extraordinarily beautiful lifts and balances.

Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell were a joy to watch in Voices of Spring, another pas de deux divorced from its original musical context, as they whirled through Strauss’ Frühlingsstimmen waltz, scattering petals, and jumping and spinning with sparkling, brittle accuracy.

Monotones, a complete contrast with its distilled abstract classicism introduced a more serious mood, and was danced with a remote lyrical intensity that brought a lump to the throat.  This is a ballet that works well on the big screen, as is the final work, Marguerite and Armand.  Rojo was paired with Sergei Polunin, who had to work hard to match her dramatic power in the ballet’s series of passionate duets.  A superb example of narrative form in dance, this ballet is a wonderful vehicle for Rojo and Polunin, as it was for Fonteyn and Nureyev.  From the moment that they see each other, we feel their compelling passion and the tragic story is utterly believable.

We were a tiny audience at the Phoenix:  the Phoenix and the Royal Opera House really must advertise their dance programmes more effectively (and provide accurate cast lists;  last night’s seemed to be a work of fiction).  Many of us knew each other, and watching this astonishing performance was an intense shared experience.  At the end, in the back row we were almost weeping with Rojo as she was showered with flowers.  Then, wonderfully, as she took her curtain calls, she rallied and joyfully responded to the cheering audience in a way that we could feel even five months later in a cinema.

The DVD comes out in September.

Maggie Watson

16 July 2013