In their final programme of the year The Royal Ballet celebrates Sir Frederick Ashton, the founder choreographer who gave this company a wonderful classical repertory and British ballet a defining style. Initially I thought of this double bill as a case of odd pairing since, on one corner, appealing to the Ashton addicts and older crowds, there’s the very chic Les Patineurs, and on the other, practically screaming “kids only”, the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Why match them?
Mr. Clement Crisp, the eminent Financial Times dance critic, has a strong opinion on Potter: “My reaction is to remind myself that the right place for a piglet is a roasting-dish, that squirrels are vermin and that mouse-traps are cheap”. But we must try to practice what we preach and approach ballets with an open mind. Having seen neither piece before, off I went looking forward to a feast of Ashtonian body bends and patterns.
Featuring a créme de la créme opening night cast I thought Les Patineurs was a ballet of sheer beauty. Ashton conjures a vintage ice rink and through the way the dancers move and the various divertissements we get glimpses of couples, groups and individuals, all having a jolly good time skating. To replicate the feel of dancing on ice the chassé is heavily used, as are fouettés and various forms of spinning and walking on pointe. Soloists emerge from the group dances, developing their own signature moves on ice, with blue girl Laura Morera giving a masterclass on the suppleness of the Ashtonian back and fellow blue skater Yuhui Choe combining quick footsteps with the most graceful upper body and showing off some amazing fouettés en tournant.
The central white couple was handsomely danced by Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. This pas de deux is such an elegant portrait of a couple in love, beautiful dance emanating from the simplest of stories, so truly and deeply Ashton. But the evening’s scene stealer is Steven McRae as the Blue Boy, a role that seemed created on him as it demands a combination of panache and precision, both of which he is able to deliver by the bucketload. Delighted, poised and completely in character as the ice-rink show-off he dazzled the house in series of sparkling beaten brisés and a jaw-dropping combination of turns on fourth gear.
Next item on the bill, the parade of cute furry animals in Tales of Beatrix Potter, with their nostalgic, just-fresh-off-the-books manner, might have won over quite a few cynics in the audience. As a dance piece it might not be very complex, but consider this: every character onstage is dressed in a bulky costume weighing between 4 and 5 kilos, with the animals heads an extra 2 kilos (our thanks to Bennet Gartside – aka Bennet76 – for this interesting bit of Potter trivia). The fact that they can dance any steps at all baffles us, with the quick and imaginative footwork for Squirrel Nutkin (Paul Kay) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Kenta Kura), the underlying elegance of the pas de deux between Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) and Pig-Wig (Laura Morera), the quirky pantomime between Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Jonathan Howells) and the Fox (Gary Avis) seeming like a miracle.
There were, of course, plenty of kids amongst us but I could just as well see several adults gasping and smiling while Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb smashed the plates from the doll house. And so, by unleashing our inner kid and opening a window to a simpler past where the biggest problem was finishing homework before a good bedtime story, Potter weaves its Christmas magic. It worked on us.