Rhapsody, Sensorium, and Still Life at the Penguin Café, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, March 2011

Why were there empty seats? This is a wonderful Triple Bill, and the Royal Ballet gave a glorious performance, yet on the Grand Tier four boxes in a row were empty. All paid for no doubt, but unused for some of the finest dancing the Company can produce.

Steven McRae in Rhapsody, photo by Tristram Kenton

The evening started with Rhapsody to Rachmaninov’s well-known Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a delightful ballet created by Frederick Ashton in 1980. He made it for Baryshnikov in the lead role, and the quick darting steps for the leading man were brilliantly executed here by Steven McRae — his pirouettes with jumps were terrific. Yet McRae was not alone in his fabulous performance, but beautifully partnered by Alina Cojocaru, who danced with consummate musicality. Barry Wordsworth in the orchestra pit breathed life into Rachmaninov’s music, particularly during the big pas-de-deux, and the whole cast responded with warmth. This was a super performance, and although Ms. Cojocaru got only a relatively small bouquet in the curtain calls, she and McRae received enormous applause, and fully deserved it.

Benjamin and Whitehead in Sensorium, photo by Johan Persson

Following this was Sensorium, a ballet by Alastair Marriott, first performed in May 2009. The music is Debussy, from his Preludes, and the way it captures light and shade is beautifully assisted by Adam Wiltshire’s simple designs along with lighting by John Read showing subtle changes of intensity and colour. The principal couples were Marianela Nuñez with Rupert Pennefather, and Leanne Benjamin with Thomas Whitehead, and they and the other ten supporting dancers gave a wonderfully controlled performance. The choreography doesn’t flow and excite in the way that Rhapsody does, but as the middle item in the programme it was just right before leading in to the exciting romp of Penguin Café.

Its title may say Still Life, but this extraordinary work by David Bintley is nothing if not full of movement, eloquently expressing the life and energy of animals who are being left behind in a changing world. Emma Maguire was charming in the first movement as the Great Auk, a type of penguin that became extinct in the nineteenth century, and Zenaida Yanowsky was in sparkling form in the second movement as the Utah Longhorn Ram, excellently partnered by Gary Avis. These largish animals are followed by the Texan Kangaroo Rat, danced with wonderful fluidity by James Hay, and then come the dancing fleas, with Iohna Loots dancing brightly as the skunk flea in orange. After that comes the large Southern Cape Zebra with his bevy of charming ladies, and Edward Watson portrayed him with great stage presence.

Steven McRae as the Monkey, photo by Tristram Kenton

Towards the end, Steven McRae burst in as the Brazilian Woolly Monkey, dancing up a storm with fabulous jumps and fluid movements. It’s a glorious ballet to watch, and the music by Stephen Jeffes is an eclectic mix of Charleston, ballroom, jazz, folk and Latin American, superbly conducted by Paul Murphy. I particularly loved the huge bounce he gave to the movement with the fleas, but it was all enormous fun.

This is a Triple Bill not to be missed. The company is doing an extraordinary job in putting on these evenings with three ballets, and the idea that there are empty seats in well-appointed boxes is appalling. There are five more performances, finishing on March 28 — for more details click here.

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