Arts: Dance: Our friends from the north, quite simply

Northern Ballet Theatre Marlowe Theatre Canterbury
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The Independent Culture
SIMPLY: NBT is not some soul-baring autobiography about Northern Ballet Theatre, but a ploy, much-used by dance companies, to glue together a mixed bill under one title and persuade audiences that these are not, really, so different from Swan Lake.

Simply: NBT also points to A Simple Man, the evening's most substantial component, and for long the company's signature ballet. An evocation of the life and work of LS Lowry, it symbolises the company's continuity, choreographed in 1987 by Gillian Lynne when Robert de Warren was director, brought to fame by his successor Christopher Gable (who also danced Lowry's role) and now performed under Stefano Giannetti's new tenure.

It wears well, bringing to life people of Lowry's paintings: the stick- thin men in crumpled grey suits and cloth caps, the mill workers, a young girl with a tennis racket and long pigtail. Luc Jacobs makes a suitably lanky, ill-at-ease Lowry, socially crippled by his proprietorial mother and only able to possess the woman he longs for by freezing her image in paint.

Continuity and change: Giannetti wants his 32 dancers to look sleek and modern. They certainly fit this bill in Derek Williams's Jazz Concerto, made for NBT in 1993 and remounted this summer. Classical echappes and entrechats meet jazzy struts and swivels and Philip Feeney's percussive score. Never has the company looked so hungrily lithe and sexy, the women prancing on high pointes, tendril-arms undulating airily, the men devouring space in brawny jumps.

Charlotte Broom dances a smoochy pas de deux, composing bendy shapes with her partner Graham Fletcher; Lynsey Brown, blonde hair flying, legs like weapons, has two men to lift her. Williams's dances follow each other abundantly and lengthily. Their brittle flamboyance is not my cup of tea, but they are certainly a crowd-pleaser.

Further evidence that NBT suits a contemporary style comes with the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato's Jardi Tancat (Catalan for "Closed Garden"). Three couples stand on parched earth and dance a prayer for rain. Each has a pas de deux, slightly different, but always sensational in its desperate intensity and mix of fast interlocking intricacies and big, bold contours. Duato's choreography has a passionate legibility; the arching movements seem to come from deep within; Maria del Mar Bonet's husky voice in Majorcan folk songs drives the rhythm on; the women's skirts swirl. It may be school of Jiri Kylian, it may sometimes look like pastiche Christopher Bruce. But then, Duato comes from the same choreographic stable. And anyway, who cares when it makes the dancers look the opposite of provincial second- league?

Jardi Tancat enters a British repertory for the first time, and although Giannetti says he inherited this particular programme, he's likely to bring a more European slant to the repertory. Continental Europe may not be at the height of popularity right now, but in art let us not beef about nationality.

Nadine Meisner