The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage review – a celebration for the soul

Marianela Nunez in Don Quixote. Photo by ROH

After seven months, The Royal Ballet returned with Back on Stage, bringing much-needed joy to the socially distanced audience at the Royal Opera House and to the global dance community watching from their homes across the world. 

With the decimation of the dance industry due to covid, it was an emotional moment to see the Royal Opera House shining bright; even with partially empty seats and the orchestra spaced apart, as they opened the night playing the overture from Sleeping Beauty.

The gala evening celebrated the diverse repertoire of The Royal Ballet, with a programme that seemed to capture the emotions of our collective experience of the current situation. Opening with an excerpt from Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, the stage was dark, the music mournful. The dancers were stripped of their tights and pointe shoes and dressed in somber shades. They filled the stage, spaced apart with arms raised, as they pulsed low, coming together as one and breaking apart as they ran in an orchestrated chaos; emulating the feelings we have as we mourn the loss of live dance, of our liberties, of those moments which bring us together and fill our souls.

We’ve needed dance, we’ve needed to feel something other than fear, frustration, loss and confusion. We’ve needed to see these exquisite dancers grace the stage, to take us on a journey, to transport us, to allow us to feel love, happiness, and elation in these difficult times.

Despite the beauty of the dancers, it was a little sad seeing Akane Takada and Federico Bonelli perform a divine Swan Lake pas de deux without the stunning sets, that The Royal Ballet is so renowned for. This only served to remind us that the future of dance is as equally as stark without sufficient funding. But Akane and Federico rose to bring this love story to life and momentarily took us away from the troubles of today.

And in return, the socially distanced audience responded with roaring applause that was so loud you wouldn’t know that there were only 400 people, instead of 2000 watching the live show. It was warming to see that the Royal Opera House had filled the seats with nurses, who are so deserving of a good night out. And they certainly appreciated Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke as they performed Cathy Marston’s In Our Wishes.

This pair is one of the ballet bubbles formed by The Royal Ballet to enable the dancers to rehearse and perform on stage. This duet of billowing colour and true emotion, was followed by the iconic Jewels ‘Diamonds’ pas de deux with wonderful performances by the stunning Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirono, who brought some pure classical sparkle to the stage.

The ballet bubble of Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri was a real highlight of the evening, as they performed Kenneth MacMillan’s Carousel ‘If I loved You’ pas de deux. Gorgeous Matthew Ball lit the stage alight with his grace and charm and his perfectly landed complex jump combinations. The elegant Mayara floated across the stage with an effervescent joy, that added lightness and lifted our spirits, making us feel like there’s a future ahead of us that has love, happiness and dance.

Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov in Don Quixote. Photo ROH

And those feelings of joy were further elevated by seeing the company fill the stage in Christopher Wheeldon’s heart stopping finale in Within The Golden Hour. The sublime dancers shimmied in golden costumes, like celestial stars coming together, only to split apart, sliding and bursting on stage like sparks from the sun. The collective energetic performance sent an electrical charge across the theatre with pirouettes that pulsed, penchés that passed 180 degrees, creating buzzing silhouettes against the solar flare lighting.

The company continued to celebrate their repertoire with Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, with a pas de deux from long time principal Laura Morera and Alexander Campbell who led their fellow dancers in this spritely, characterful piece that added a magical dimension to the night and showed off the company’s strengths and natural flair for performing this creator’s iconic work.

Throughout the hosted event there were interviews with dancers, costume makers and ballet masters, giving us an insight into what it takes to put on a night of dance. They also talked about the challenges faced by dancers who had to train at home during lockdown. And after months of taking company class in their kitchens and lounge rooms, the dancers would be forgiven for being not quite at their best. However, The Royal Ballet didn’t disappoint with their exceptional display of technique and artistry.

Their dedication to maintaining their world standard, showed in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée pas de deux with a glorious performance by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé, who didn’t seem to be affected by the months away from the studio. Marcelino delivered a standout performance with so much joy, high leaps and impressive turns, alongside Anna’s fast footwork, beautiful lines and allure, that saw the audience applause in appreciation as they took their bows.

And with the audience on a high, Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales broke their hearts, with a romantic and heartfelt performance from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Francesca was truly superb; she embodied Juliet as she poured every once of emotion into the role, as she professed her love for Romeo. The divine choreography of MacMillan suits Francesca, who is captivating as the young star crossed lover.

As the curtain closed on the sad love story, the infamous ballerina Natalia Osipova stepped onto the stage, giving an intense, raw and compelling solo from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Medusa. This role shows the power of this principal, who is able to make this ugly Medusa achingly beautiful. Natalia is rare for being able to absorb the character deep into the fibre of her artistic being. She doesn’t dance the steps or perform the character, she becomes Medusa and Medusa’s heart beats within her. Natalia leaves nothing unexplored in this distinctive choreography, that transforms this ballerina into a vortex – when she is on stage there is nothing else; nothing exists beyond her, beyond her movements, as she rolls on the ground, contorting, her hair wild. As this role shows, Natalia isn’t just a dancer, she’s a true artistic force.

Marianela Nunez in Don Quixote. Photo ROH

Another exceptional principal artist of The Royal Ballet is Edward Watson, who has recently announced his retirement from the stage. And it was wonderful to see him perform the mesmerising work of his long time friend and choreographer Wayne McGregor in the exceptional Woolf Works from ‘I Now, I Then’, dancing alongside Akane and Calvin Richardson. But with Ed on the stage, and knowing this was one of the final few times we’ll see him perform, all eyes were on him and his body that displays a lifetime of training. As he moves you can see all the years of experience and knowledge flow through every mastered step, steps that he’ll pass on as a coach with the company. It was an understated farewell to one of the most incredible male dancers that has graced the Opera House stage.

The penultimate highlight of the night was the sensational and unrivalled partnership of Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov, who performed a pas de deux from the spectacular Don Quixote, dressed in cream and gold costumes. As soon as they stepped onto the stage, you could literally see how happy these dancers were to be back; to be performing together and bringing their love of dance to a live audience. What makes these two so exceptional is their unique connection. With deep trust and immense skill, they bring out the best in each other. And watching their pas de deux, is like sharing a secret with them, as they lock eyes and smile with pure happiness of performing together. When they dance it is not work, this is pleasure and one we get to indulge in with them. And seeing Vadim’s awe-inspiring centre split leaps and Marianela’s fouettés delivered with stunning confidence, they literally took your breath away and made the audience roar. This is what superstar ballet dancers look like! 

And just when we thought the night couldn’t get any better, The Royal Ballet finishes the evening with the colourful and humorous Elite Syncopations by Kenneth MacMillan. This ballet is exactly what London, the UK and the world needs right now, with its verve, spice, comedy, live music, cute costumes, pink hats, green tights, stripped skirts popping in eyes, swirls and adorned with bows, flowers and bobbles of technicolour magic. In this dazzling display of technique, acting and comic timing, the dancers performed jazzy, cabaret inspired clowning around with high kicks, sashays and high tempo waltzing that made us forget all of woes.

But even all the colour and pizazz couldn’t overshadow the challenges the company has had to overcome to let the show go on. And it’s great to see these professionals are as strong as ever. They are clearly grateful to be able to perform, even in bubbles and to a social distanced, reduced audience. They came alive as they were able to show their craft that has taken two to three decades to perfect. These world renowned dancers also represent a body of artists in this country could cannot simply retrain to fit in with government spending priorities, that seems to devalue the arts. 

And this one evening reminds us all just how important the arts and dance is to the fabric of society, especially during times of crisis. We’ve missed these incredible dancers, the talented musicians, the choreographers’ work, the lighting, the costumes, theatre workers and everyone else that make up the dance industry. It’s an industry that’s on a knife edge and the government needs to provide more specific support for dance and theatre, as these are careers and not just jobs, they are vital and need to remain viable. The government needs to ensure the survival of dance.