After a seven month absence from the stage, the COVID rules were finally eased enough for The Royal Ballet to invite a 400 strong audience to a gala, The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage curated by its artistic director, Kevin O’Hare, with the full company making appearances, socially distanced except in certain bubbles, along with a full orchestra housed in the stalls. It was not ‘normal’ but nonetheless, a spectacular return, feverishly anticipated by everyone associated with the arts and delivered with such expertise and sheer brilliance that – dare I say it – the restrictions imposed may well have brought out the best in terms of resilience, determination, reflection, artistry and a very blatant joy at being back where they belong. And just in case they couldn’t hear, the appreciation from all quarters of the auditorium at being allowed back to witness live performance was reciprocated with fervent enthusiasm.
With military precision, we had to check in via NHS track and trace, remain masked at all times, e-ticket checked, temperature checked, bag checked through a huge Perspex wall, no bars or restaurants open, free water bottles for the socially distanced single interval and spaced out seating arrangements. The audience comprised some NHS nurses and families, some especially invited people including the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, along with students of the Royal Ballet Upper School and a handful of critics.
Sitting in the auditorium, I felt a kind of nervous anxiety combined with a ferocious excitement on behalf of everyone involved. The tear ducts spilled over when the orchestra, with the wonderful Jonathan Lo conducting, played the overture to The Sleeping Beauty. That magnificent sound engulfing the auditorium, settling on us like a blanket of glorious familiarity, yet better than ever before, resonating deeply, a reminder of easier times, a reminder of stunning performances and evidence that nothing sounds quite as good as live music.
The programme, over three hours long, was perfectly conceived – a balance between the classics, (Petipa, Ashton, MacMillan, Balanchine), and the new and established choreographers of the 21st century. It included Swan Lake Act II pas de deux from Akane Takada, in fine form, and her exceedingly attentive and touchingly enamoured partner, Federico Bonelli. Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano gave an elegant rendition of the Diamonds pas de deux from Balanchine’s Jewels. The third act pas de deux from Don Quixote, as delivered by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov could not have been more immaculate or awe-inspiring. In sections from Ashton’s The Dream, Laura Morera and Alexander Campbell gave a beautiful, musically sumptuous account of the pas de deux and prior to that, William Bracewell – thrillingly elegant and lithe as Oberon, with one of my favourite Pucks, Valentino Zucchetti (and a team of delightful fairies) made me want to see the ballet once again in its entirety. Cesar Corrales and Francesca Hayward tugged at the heart strings in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet Balcony pas de deux, persuasive as ever and danced with ardent commitment.
The gala opened with a section from Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable – a powerful beginning and somehow apt. Cathy Marston’s new In Our Wishes, created for Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke to Rachmaninoff, was moving and sensitively danced. Apart from a moment of costume catastrophe, unfortunate underwear exposure, this was a gorgeous pairing with fluid choreography. If I Loved You from MacMillan’s Carousel gave Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball a platform to shine. Infectiously boisterous and charming, the two of them seem to have emerged from the months of confinement with renewed vigour and even more flamboyant technical excellence. Absolutely enchanting! Another highlight, amid so many, was Christopher Wheeldon’s finale to Within the Golden Hour. Such exquisite invention, so beautifully danced could hardly fail to raise our spirits. A solo from Medusa, danced by Natalia Osipova, a role which was created for her, did not quite hit the spot but Edward Watson, coming out of his recent retirement, to perform a section from Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, I Now, I Then – with Takada and Calvin Richardson, made me wonder if his retirement was a little premature. This extraordinary and consummate artist looks to be in fantastic shape and his performance served to remind us how very much we will miss him on stage. MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations could not have been a more fitting end to the evening – ravishingly led by Yasmine Naghdi and Nicol Edmonds and a particularly good James Hay in his Friday Night solo, the huge cast exuded all the previously pent up love of the art form we so badly wanted to see.
There is a performance I haven’t yet mentioned. If ever there was an antidote to crumbling mental and physical health under the restrictions of lockdown and a pandemic, the doom and gloom of these last months that has affected us all, then it must be to simply watch Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé in Ashton’s pas de deux (Act I) from La Fille mal gardée. There were a lot of magical and transporting moments within the gala – indeed it was one big highlight of the year for many of us, whether watched at home or at the ROH. But this particular duo was a tipping point, the moment the lid blew off the kettle. Performance inspires many things – but when you have technical assurance, innate musicality, combined with charisma, natural ebullience and an ability to communicate the joy of the dance, those gifts translate across every boundary to give us the very essence, the heart and soul of the art form. This partnership was goosebump-inducing, shout from the rooftops stuff. They summed up what McGregor said so eloquently in a brief interview with compere Anita Rani, that the dancers and musicians, along with all the people that work to make live performances happen, are “the beating artery of the Opera House.” As O’Sullivan and Sambé swept across the diagonal in the coda, devouring the stage as I have never seen before – the miserable events of the last months were remedied. It’s possible my temperature may have risen by the close of the show and certainly, my heart was beating faster – but I would challenge anyone in the government to suggest, ignorantly, that we can survive without live performance – and even more insulting, that it may be necessary to retrain or re-educate. Artists of this calibre have been training full-time since they were children, working harder their whole lives than most people could even imagine. The proof of success is in the performance. Welcome back – let us hope that theatres opening up stay that way – my sanity has been restored. The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage, an exhilarating evening of dance is available online until November 8th 2020.
By Deborah Weiss