Arts: Dance: A little Ashton underlined

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I MUST be careful what I say. A packed house at Sadler's Wells on Monday night, after the empty seats at far less interesting programmes last week, demonstrates that I am not the only person to rejoice that the Royal Ballet has woken up to the idea of putting on works by its founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton. So I don't want to stop them from persevering with the ballets of their greatest ever creative artist.

But they need to be done much better if they are to convince. Enigma Variations, the big revival on this occasion, relies on the audience's imagination to make sense of it. Just look at Peter Abegglen's comic ferocity as Elgar's friend, WMB, or the boisterous, brusque speed of Bruce Sansom as Troyte, and then you can see just what is missing from the performances of all the other men, who give caricatures instead of characters.

The women are not so bad, and Elizabeth McGorian did rather well by her gently solicitous Lady Elgar. But there was nobody on stage with the style, flair and commitment which Ashton could take for granted in his cast when he made the ballet 30 years ago.

And even more serious is the loss of the whole point of the ballet. Enigma is not just a series of portraits, but a celebration of friendship, and it makes no sense unless the players bring their parts, and relationships, to life.

This is not an easy ballet to bring off but Birmingham Royal Ballet showed three years ago that it can still be done. Come to that, the Birmingham company manages Ashton's classic display piece, Birthday Offering, better than their London colleagues. Still, Miyako Yoshida did the Fonteyn solo with smiling ease on Monday, and her perky fouettes were the brightest thing, too, in a no more than modest account of Ashton's attractive ballet based on skating, Les Patineurs.

Also back in the repertoire is the Royal Ballet's big 1995 production, Twyla Tharp's Mr Worldly Wise. Kitsch is the best description for it. Its basis contrasted music by Rossini with the addition of innumerable fancy-dress costumes by David Roger and countless odd steps by Ms Tharp, who is at her least good when trying to be at her most classical.

Irek Mukhamedov's personality and humour in the title part go a long way towards disguising the incoherence of it all, and Shi-Ning Liu now abets him with brilliance, charm and wit as the apprentice. Without Mukhamedov, however, I wonder why they bother at all; William Trevitt replaces him now at some performances, bravely but forlornly.

John Percival