ARTS / A prince and a foreman: Dancer of the Year

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WHEN Irek Mukhamedov took a bow after his debut as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling in October, his wife Maria, who was sitting in the Covent Garden audience, knew something was wrong. A few minutes later, she found out what it was. Mukhamedov's great friend and the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, had died backstage in the middle of the first production of his own masterpiece since 1986. He was 62. Mukhamedov was given the news immediately after his performance, and he stumbled back on stage, stunned and grieving. For many reasons, not least because of the special rapport between choreographer and dancer, it is apt to name Irek Mukhamedov, a principal with the Royal Ballet since 1990, as dancer of the year.

In March, MacMillan had created a leading role for Mukhamedov as the Foreman in The Judas Tree, and later in the season, the former Bolshoi star made his debut in the title role of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. This was their year, and Mayerling was the apotheosis: Mukhamedov's dramatic intensity and sizzling sexuality was everything MacMillan was looking for in the mercurial and despairing prince.

Mukhamedov is not only a dancer of dignity and virtuosity but also a committed promoter of ballet. This summer, he and a dozen Royal Ballet colleagues took A Gala Evening of Classical Ballet around the country, starting in Northampton. Muhkamedov formed a special company, and commissioned new works from some of our leading young choreographers - David Bintley, Ashley Page, William Tuckett, Matthew Hart.

Ever since Mukhamedov joined the Royal Ballet after nine years at the Bolshoi, he has been feted for the power of his solos, the strength of his partnering and the breadth of his emotions. His performances were the finest in a good year for the Royal Ballet, though Viviana Durante's kittenish portrayal of Rudolf's mistress, Mary Vetsera, in Mayerling should not be forgotten.

On the contemporary scene, the American dancer Joanne Barrett stood out in Michael Clark's Mmm or Modern Masterpiece. In a solo in waist-high knickers, she was mind as body: not sex object but the thinking body, living for movement not for men's gaze. She was hypnotic, spinning, falling, reaching with an acuity that stretched the sequence to its boundaries and beyond.

Another American, Mark Morris, the enfant sauvage of dance, brought his Dido and Aeneas to the Edinburgh Festival in his first visit to Britain. There are better dancers in the world but few better choreographers. His dancing deserves accolades this time because he cast himself as a totally believable Dido, Queen of Carthage. Why did he do it? Because, he said, it was the best part.

There have been any number of Juliets this year, but none so definitive as Trinidad Sevillano in the English National Ballet's revival of Frederick Ashton's dreamy Romeo and Juliet. She matured from ingenue to woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in a performance that was outstanding for its acting as its technique.

(Photograph omitted)