The evening's light relief comes with Ashton's Birthday Offering, a piece of dazzlingly tricky classical invention. And this summer, as athletes aim to smash every world record, it's worth noting that in 1956 (when the work was created), the Royal could field seven ballerinas capable of inspiring choreography that, even today, pushes dancers to the edge of their musical and technical limits.
Created in 1923, Nijinska’s Les Noces is a stark masterpiece, evoking a Russian peasant wedding in fierce, stylised dances. The bride and her friends form a pyramid of faces, a geometric pileup. Feet stomp, or stab at the stage in sharp pointework. The corps de ballet churn and stamp through the pounding rhythms of Stravinsky’s harsh score.
In contrast, Zenaida Yanowsky’s portrayed a gamut of emotions as the bored, spoilt but hopelessly enamoured heroine Natalia Petrovna in Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country. Made in 1976, it was Ashton’s last great work, artfully condensing Turgenev’s play into five memorably pas de deux. The eight-strong cast were all good, although Yanowsky, as ever, stood out, as did Rupert Pennefather who as the Tutor Beliaev showed his increasing maturity and assurance as a lead dancer.