On my very first trip to the Royal Opera House, I sat next to a lovely Irish lady. While waiting for the curtain to rise, we started chatting and next thing I knew she was telling me about one of her first trips to this very place – when, as a young girl, she had travelled over from Ireland to see Margot Fonteyn dance with Rudolf Nureyev. »I was sitting all the way up there« she said, pointing to the very back of the Amphitheatre, »And it was magic. Even after they stopped dancing, I couldn’t move – I just sat there.« Needless to say, I was completely in awe. With Dame Margot passing away in 1991, and Nureyev in 1993, I never had the chance to see these exceptional artists perform, so sitting next to someone who had – well, that was as close as I’d ever been.
Last week, it felt like I got a tiny bit closer. As some of you might remember, a young man named Sergei Polunin caused quite a stir just over a year ago when he walked out on his employer, The Royal Ballet. A few months later, a lady named Tamara Rojo caused a somewhat more dignified stir, when she announced that she too would be leaving her position as a principal dancer with the company to become artistic director of the English National Ballet. Now, Polunin of course didn’t get a proper farewell – he left behind a massive mess of ballerinas without a partner and ballets having to be re-cast, so a farewell performance was never really in the cards. Ms Rojo’s exit was perhaps not quite as unexpected – her ambitions of directing a company were well known – but it still didn’t feel like she was given a suitable send off. While the choreographer Wayne McGregor did break his adamant ‘no flowers on stage’ rule for her last performance, which of course resulted in several gorgeous bouquets, the true centre of attention that evening was somebody else: Dame Monica Mason, who was the artistic director of The Royal Ballet for 10 years, and celebrated her last performance at the helm of the company that very same night. I suppose that was a pretty good excuse for stealing Tamara’s thunder… Anyway, last week these two super stars returned to The Royal Opera House to dance the iconic title roles in Frederick Ashton’s ‘Marguerite and Armand’. And I think it’s safe to say that their return was a glorious one – Sergei Polunin was full of high-jumping, cape-swishing passion and Tamara Rojo was perfectly breathtaking as the ailing yet graceful courtesan, spending her last hours reliving their tragic love story.
‘Marguerite and Armand’ was created especially for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev – Ashton wanted to showcase their unique partnership, giving Fonteyn, who was well into her forties at the time, a vehicle for her incredible stage presence and emotionally strong dancing and granting the young Nureyev a dramatic role full of jumps and balances. And as I sat at The Royal Opera House last week – all the way up in the Upper Slips – I tried my hardest not to blink while Rojo and Polunin revived this intense love story, drawing a direct line back to Fonteyn and Nureyev and showing us exactly what ballet is all about. Because while there is no doubt that Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are unrivalled – both as individuals and in their partnership – Rojo and Polunin aren’t too shabby themselves. And I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few members of the audience had travelled a lot longer than my 20-minute bike ride to be in Covent Garden that evening. Because having reached a point where I have to buy programs in order to keep track of the shows I’ve seen, there are still some performances that stand out and will stay with you forever – even from the Upper Slips or the very back of the Amphitheatre.