It’s classical, but not as you know it. William Forysthe’s 1996 Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is a brief, dazzling showcase of ballet technique that is nailed by its title: it’s all about verticality, virtuosity and precision – plus that frisson of danger as you sense that one wrong foot could bring the whole thing down. Basically, it’s ballet on speed, a sensation amplified by the acid plum and lime of its costumes, its nervy rush of steps. All of it is pegged, tightly and rather surprisingly, to a Schubert allegro. As the opening piece on the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s quadruple bill, the risk paid off – just. Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Akane Takada were late stand-ins and you couldn’t help but feel for them if they didn’t quite match fellow dancers Marianela Nuñez, Steven McRae and Vadim Muntagirov. Yet the few falterings and mistimings served only to highlight the achievement of the piece: the sheer mechanism of those dizzy spins, the flitting jumps, the lightning footwork.
Virtuosity was up front again in George Balanchine’s even briefer Tarantella duet. It’s the kind of work that could look silly if it’s not done brilliantly: two flirtatiously beaming dancers bouncing about in faux-folk costumes, and brandishing tambourines to give it all a bit of rattle. Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward did it brilliantly: he the springiest of bucks, she a saucy wench who can flaunt her hips even in a deep plié on pointe – and still never miss a beat. The audience was in their hands, as quiversome as those tambourines.
If the first half of the evening was all surface bravura, the second half moved into more suggestive emotional territory. Christopher Wheeldon’s 2016 Strapless tells the story of Amélie Gautreau, a social-climbing young beauty of the belle époque who commissions a portrait from painter John Singer Sargent, but the risqué result – her dress slipping from one strapless shoulder – leads to her downfall. To complicate the story, Sargent’s own lover, who inspires the half-hidden, half-revealed erotics of the painting, is a man. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s commissioned score is suitably turbulent, swelling with nameless undercurrents, and Bob Crowley’s ominous sets and colour-coded costumes – red for sex, black for society – are splendid. The let-down, despite the best efforts of the dancers (Natalia Osipova as Amélie, Federico Bonelli as the rakish Dr Pozzi, Ed Watson and Matthew Ball as Sargent and his lover), is the dance itself. The explicitly sexual pas de deux for Amélie and Dr Pozzi is so carefully styled as to be devoid of passion – and if that is its point, it would be better made if the subsequent nightclub scene of cancan dancers in frothy skirts, demurely flashing their knickers at some fairly placid punters, were not equally well-behaved. Even the trio, in which the figure of Sargent’s lover becomes both the muse that inspires Amélie’s portrait and the ghost that haunts it, is oddly docile. There are some great ideas within this buttoned-up ballet, but as it stands, Strapless is curiously bloodless.
Another red-and-black ballet closes the evening. Created as a tribute to Zenaida Yanowsky, who retires this season after 23 years with the Royal Ballet (16 of them as a principal dancer), Liam Scarlett’s Symphonic Dances is a plotless work that surges with the drama that the plot-driven Strapless lacks: unspoken emotions, gender ambiguity, recklessness. Following the movements of Rachmaninov’s score, Yanowsky appears in three different guises. In the first she is remote, imperious, stalking the stage in crimson skirt topped with a dash of black. James Hay is the young man who – in a reversal of balletic gender convention – represents a boyish allure who coaxes her out from her position as watcher, and remains a supplicating presence throughout their tentatively connective pas de deux.
The rhythms of the waltz – so often used to evoke both doom and desire – drive the most rivetting of Scarlett’s scenes. Eight bare-chested men appear wearing that Yanowsky-style skirt, while Yanowksy herself appears in a tunic, rakishly cropped to the top of the thigh: she skirtless, they shirtless, the angled colours of their costumes echoing the rakish slant, in an repeated iconic pose, of their shoulders. It’s a gorgeous composition, Scarlett sending the men into restless swirls around the equally androgynous figure of Yanowsky. The final movement sees Yanowksy and the entire cast in red-and-black leotards and trunks. It’s an aerobic, sporty occasion, the dancers pistoning legs as if on racing blocks, and pumping away at their steps. Stretched rather thin, it’s less captivating than the first two movements, but it gives Yanowsky her due: she’s a powerful, out-of-the-mould dancer who can do athletics as readily as drama, gut-driven emotion as well as sure-footed lyricism.