An explosive return for the bad boy of opera

BALLET

MIXED PROGRAMME

Royal Opera House

****

The Royal Opera House’s mixed programme of ballet, marking the 25th anniversary of renowned dancer and choreographer Frederick Ashton’s death, was bound to be an explosive affair.

It saw the dramatic return of Sergei Polunin – the former bad boy of British ballet – to the stage he dramatically quit, mid rehearsal, just under a year ago. Polunin, a formidable presence on the stage, was expected to be at the heart of the Royal Ballet for many years but shocked the establishment when he spoke of his deep disillusionment with the ballet world and his role in it.

Now a principal at the Stanislavski Ballet in Russia – replete with an inked torso acquired at his very own Holloway Road parlour – his return as a guest performer had fans salivating. Thankfully, he clearly hasn’t lost his passion altogether. His performance as Armand in Marguerite and Armand, the final performance of the night, was wonderfully ardent.

He was starring opposite the luminous Tamara Rojo, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, now working behind the scenes as Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, who returned to Covent Garden for her swansong.

Polunin’s feeling for Rojo’s Marguerite was touching and believable, first wooing then rejecting her, his jumps and spins ever higher and sharper, before collapsing into grief as the tragedy concludes. Rojo, a real dancing actress, portrayed Marguerite’s journey from adored courtesan to desperate lover with tremendous pathos. Her fluidity of movement in even the most simple of gestures, such as the telling cough of the consumptive, was sublime and utterly moving.

My belief never wavered in Rojo and her relationships with the varied men in her life. The rapturous response was well deserved: proof, if any were needed, that the Royal Ballet will sorely miss having these two artists as full-time members.

Of the works earlier in the programme, Voices of Spring offered the most charm; Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell confidently filling the shoes of the indisposed Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae with their neat steps and petal throwing. The retro-futuristic look of the dancers in Monotones I and II offered a study in balance and stillness, but the ambition of the piece was only partially realised. Meditation from Thais seemed a touch dated in both choreography and presentation but La Valse was a pleasing opener, setting the tone for an evening The Royal Ballet should consider a great success.