Oh the joys of Frederick Ashton! There are few choreographers who are so consistently satisfying; after the advent joys of Monotones I and II, The Royal Ballet revive Rhapsody, the choreographer's birthday present in 1981 to The Queen Mother. But, as was so often the case with his pièces d'occasion, the work proved a critical and popular success and established itself in the repertoire. This revival is particularly welcome for the restoration of the original sets and designs by William Chappell, albeit in a slightly more contemporary colour palette. What we have, though, is the restoration of the arches and balustrade which, of course, make sense of elements of the choreography and mise en place of the dancers. So, three cheers for Kevin O'Hare for restoring them to us, and to the ballet itself.
Rhapsody shows that the elderly choreographer had lost none of his talent for creating steps of unquestionable 'rightness' with the music, or indeed his famed musicality which allow his movements to breathe within it. Steven McRae is a superb exponent of the demanding part that was initially Mikhail Baryshnikov's, bringing an insouciant quality to the most demanding of steps but true to Ashton's essentially lyric idiom, a difficult combination indeed. He exults in the bag of tricks the Russian dancer was asked to bring to the part, but is quicksilver in his movements, in the full English (that is Ashtonian) tradition.
New to her role, Natalia Osipova, returned to the London stage, and clearly relishing the challenges presented to her. She was at her best in the near ecstasy of the central pas de deux in which she bent and twisted, and imbued her dancing with a joyous quality. Elsewhere, there was much to admire, not least a greater musicality than she has shown before, but the filigree footwork that Ashton gave Lesley Collier sometimes eluded her, the steps at times smudged. Additionally, she has not yet loosened her upper body to deliver the melting and extreme épaulement that Ashton requires – in one sequence, she and the six female soloists move about, their arms and shoulders curving and waving in extravagant movement; Osipova's torso remained rigid compared with the twists and curves of the others. It was, however, a felicitous partnership with McRae, both possessing undeniable star quality.
The twelve soloists were extremely well chosen and worked hard to deliver the considerable demands of their choreography – Ashton is not content to have them as 'backing' dancers but pushes them hard.
As with Monotones before Christmas, Rhapsody acted as an opener to The Two Pigeons, an equally happy combination. I have written about the production, but suffice to say that it is as satisfying as before. For this performance, the delightful combination of two First Soloists, Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell. Choe was a delightful Young Girl, careful with this gentle choreography and portraying an innocent, playful but slightly foolish character. There is more to this role, created for Lynn Seymour, but Choe's dancing was so precise and musical that this remains a minor quibble. Since coming to London from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Campbell has become increasingly impressive, and the role of the Young Man fits him like a glove: an impetuous, boy-next-door type which suits his demi-caractère talents.
Campbell dances magnificently with high jumps and tight entrechats, and, of equal importance, always colours his movements with his character which makes his final contrition and return to the arms of the Young Girl all the more poignant. Itziar Mendizabal, while unable to eclipse memories of Laura Morera as the Gypsy Girl, danced up a storm, letting herself enjoy the choreography. It was good to have Barry Wordsworth at the helm once more – he knows the Messager score well, and brings out its belle époque lushness.