Closing its 2018-19 season, The Royal Ballet presented a mixed Russian-themed triple bill. The program lasted over three hours and featured three one-act ballets showcasing impressive choreography and incredible variety of finest ballet classics of the 20th century. Sumptuous fairy-tale spectacular of Michel Fokine’s The Firebird was followed by an emotional family drama of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country and a neo-classical Symphony in C of George Balanchine. Making their role debuts, Marianela Nuñez starred as Natalia Petrovna in A Month in the Country and Fumi Kanako stepped in the First Movement in Symphony in C.
Based on Russian folk tales, an enchanting score of The Firebird became a breakthrough work for the composer Igor Stravinsky, starting his acclaimed collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. The ballet is generally recognised for its unique synthesis of distinctive music, choreography and design, innovatively drawing on Russian folk art and rendering folksong tunes and folk-inspired movements. Mayara Magri was mesmerising in a challenging titular role. She entered the stage in a flash of red flames in a flying movement, powerful and majestic, with accentuated avian gestures of a magical bird-woman. Ryoichi Hirano and Helen Crawford were compelling as Ivan Tsarevich and Tsarevna, as was Alastair Marriott as an ominous Immortal Kostchei. Delicately nuanced, Princesses’ Khorovod superbly contrasted with an exuberant Infernal Dance, orchestrated by the Firebird into a wild blazing whirlwind of malevolent creatures. Fantastic sets and costume designs used for this production were created by the avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova for the Ballets Russes’ production of 1926. The final scene of the coronation provided the most visually striking ballet iconography, as a triumphant procession of spear-carriers, boyars, maidens and patriarchs solemnly parade in front of Goncharova’s stunning backcloth of a thousand turrets and cupolas. More set designs and sketches of this artist are currently on display at Tate Modern.
The second ballet of the evening was inspired by Ivan Turgenev’s play, A Month in the Country and was one of the last works of Frederick Ashton for The Royal Ballet. Complex family drama takes place in an opulent room of an aristocratic countryside household, with characters taking central stage in a series of sophisticated solos and nuanced passionate duets. Intricate choreography and lyrical character portrayal were exquisitely set to the music of Fryderyk Chopin. As the bored wife Natalia Petrovna, Marianela Nunez masterfully conveyed a palette of conflicting emotions through upper body movements and precise steps. Matthew Ball delivered an elegant fine portrayal of Natalia’s love interest, tutor Beliaev. Francesca Hayward (who also features in the upcoming film Cats) excelled as an impetuous ward Vera and James Hay as an energetic son, Kolia.
The evening ended with Balanchine’s Symphony in C, created in 1947 for the Paris Opera Ballet and set to Georges Bizet’s score. Powerful choreography of Russian-born George Balanchine was inspired by his experience as a young ballet dancer in St. Petersburg. Symphony in C is a perfect match of music, movement, timing, technicality, symmetrically constructed patterns and minimal set design. In the opening movement, Vadim Muntagirov and Fumi Kaneko were precise and technically assured, full of exuberant energy and vigour. Composed and confident Sarah Lamb and Nicol Edmonds brought out the charming elegance of the elegiac Second Movement. Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell were lively and confident in the Third Movement. The entire company came together for a sparkling brilliant finale of the Fourth Movement. The orchestra gave an excellent performance under the baton of Emmanuel Plasson, with a remarkable solo from the pianist Kate Shipway in A Month in the Country.
In combination, this varied trio of one-act ballets truly was a vivid showcase of The Royal Ballet’s virtuosity and fine form.