Sylvia, Manon The Royal Ballet Grand Theatre, HK Cultural Centre Reviewed: July 18 and 19 The Royal Ballet made a triumphant return to Hong Kong last week after a 25-year absence. This great company is at a peak in its distinguished history, boasting an ensemble of dancers unsurpassed worldwide. On display were two full-length ballets by the choreographers who shaped the troupe's heritage, Frederick Ashton's Sylvia and Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Sylvia is far from Ashton's best work. It is handicapped by a risible plot (nymphs and gods behaving unconvincingly in a mythical Greek setting), which is the albatross around the neck of the celebrated score by Leo Delibes. Act 1 in particular suffers from longueurs and it is not hard to see why Ashton was not satisfied with the ballet. The choreography is rarely inspired other than in the roles of Sylvia and Eros, which show their creator's trademark musicality and intricate, subtle footwork. The piece stands or falls by the excellence of the dancing and, in Marianela Nunez, the title role has an ideal interpreter. A dancer of prodigious technical gifts and impeccable schooling, she made this difficult part look easy, combining steely virtuosity with a refreshingly natural warmth and charm. Her account of the famous pizzicato solo in Act 3 was dazzling. In support, there was fine partnering by Rupert Pennefather, a musical Eros from Joshua Tuifua and a rip-roaring villain from Thiago Soares, whose dancing showed sensational speed and power. In contrast Manon, one of the greatest narrative ballets ever created, is remarkable for realistic depiction of the emotions and psychology of its characters. Set in a decadent 18th-century Paris, it deals with powerful moral issues of love, lust, corruption and greed. This work has such a wealth of content - dramatic and choreographic - that it must be seen many times to be fully appreciated. It is enhanced by the sumptuous designs of Nicholas Georgiadis and the haunting music of Jules Massenet, arranged by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt. In the title role, Tamara Rojo (left) danced superbly and gave a performance full of dramatic intelligence and detail, rising to moments of sublime passion and despair. The elegant Federico Bonelli partnered her strongly in the spectacular pas de deux and conveyed Des Grieux's doubt and anguish well, while Jose Martin showed off his exceptional ballon as a wicked Lescaut. The whole company danced and acted magnificently in support. There was outstanding accompaniment from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under conductors Graham Bond (Sylvia) and Martin Yates (Manon).