In 2019, Steven McRae snapped his achilles tendon mid-show. After surgery and intensive rehab he returned to the stage earlier this season and tonight was performing a signature role in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody: a bravura showpiece that tests speed, virtuosity, and certainly the strength of one’s achilles.
Before that finale, however, two more Ashton works make a triple bill by the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer. Ashton’s dance is full of playfulness: unexpected combinations, changes of direction, descriptive details in the hands – even in a serious piece such as A Month in the Country, inspired by an Ivan Turgenev play and the standout of the evening.
The wonderful, soulful Laura Morera is Petrovna, the listless young wife of an older husband in 19th-century Russia, whose heart leaps at the arrival of her son’s tutor (Vadim Muntagirov), the hopeful spark that makes her glow. Trickily, Petrovna’s ward (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) is infatuated with him also. The emotions of each pas de deux are beautifully delineated, Muntagirov essentially the canvas on which the women project their fantasies of love and escape, while trapped by gender and circumstance like the caged bird in Julia Trevelyan Oman’s grand sepia set.
Emotions are on hold in 1948’s fabulously retro Scènes de Ballet, a chic piece of mid-century modern set to Stravinsky, with precisely ruled geometry, pizzicato steps and a touch of melodrama in its sharp gestures. Reece Clarke holds the stage with charismatic stillness and Yasmine Naghdi is so crisp, bright and efficient there’s not a jot of energy wasted.
In this and Rhapsody, the ensemble could have been tighter – the choreography demands specificity. In Rhapsody, the corps provide contrast to the daredevil effervescence of the leading man – originally Mikhail Baryshnikov. More recently, McRae has owned this role, exuding confidence and delightful cockiness, darting squirrel-like across the stage as if saying, “Oh this? This is nothing!”