Dance / Dance that passes the screen test

NO CONTEMPORARY dance fan needed to leave home last week - there was a festival on television. From Tuesday to Friday, BBC2 broadcast four specially commissioned films in its Dance for the Camera series. Not since the 1960s has the BBC commissioned dance films: it usually recasts dance created for the stage, such as DV8's Strange Fish, a separate project broadcast on Thursday. Dance for the Camera, is an acknowledgement of contemporary dance's burgeoning following: a recent survey reveals 100,000 more tickets were sold in 1993 than in 1992.

Dance and film are inherently incompatible: film is realistic, dance unrealistic. Close collaboration between a director and choreographer was seen as the best way to overcome this. Four diverse, innovative films were the result, marking the start of a novel means of expressing dance.

The best examples of this new literacy were Ross MacGibbon and Yolande Snaith's Should Accidentally Fall (Wednesday) and Terry Braun and Shobana Jeyasingh's Duets with Automobiles (Tuesday). Milfid Ellis and William Tuckett of the Royal Ballet created a super-real, ravishing Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Friday), while Beethoven in Love (Thursday) by Bob Bentley and Divas was the least visually inventive, relying more on the appeal of black humour.

Snaith used the camera to provide a dancer's-eye view in her exploration, set loosely in a western saloon bar, of the games people play. Low angles, overhead shots and bold close- ups of hands and green bottles in flight provided a cinematic fluency as profound as her sophisticated brand of risk-taking physical theatre. It was the most enigmatic of the series but the most precise work of art.

Jeyasingh's film was born in the editing room. She created dozens of dance phrases, shot on location in three modernistic, visually affecting London buildings, which lent an light, airy, open feel. A dancer leaps feet first into view, another is filmed in silhouette, arm up against a window, three more are seen in long shot dancing down a marble corridor. These dancers are the axis around which the world revolves, enabling them to display the reinvented classical Indian style that has won Jeyasingh so many awards.

Tuckett's film was gorgeous to watch and listen to, with John Gielgud narrating. Sumptuous sets and costumes, and a lush soundtrack of a creaking ship and breaking waves took the viewer on a dreamlike voyage, made more fantastic by the superb neo-classical dance of mostly Royal Ballet performers. Leire Ortueta as the albatross lands gently on deck, flapping her wide wings, rising on pointe from time to time to add to the feel of flight. A truly lovely film that triumphed over the tiny pounds 60,000 budget.

Strange Fish was a fine reworking of the stage show, using the extra dimension of depth - corridors and rooms - and a more realistic cafe set. But it clearly belonged to an era before the dancing cameras and steaming editing suites of Dance for the Camera.

The English National Ballet probably wished it could show a film of The Nutcracker: it is having trouble with men. Yuri Klevtsov, the young Bolshoi dancer, was engaged for the five-week London season, but his debut before Christmas left you wondering why it bothered. He was tense and uncomfortable - and this in front of a niche audience not known for its bite. Soon after that, he was unexpectedly recalled to Moscow. As a replacement, the ENB flew in Thordal Christensen, a Royal Danish principal, who made his debut on Tuesday. Presumably Christensen had very little time to rehearse. There were flashes of the lyrical Danish style, but overall, he looked as if he had just received bad news. Perhaps he had: someone must have just told him that the choreographer was Ben Stevenson, master of back-to-basics ballet. Seen more than once, this soporific version is punishing. At times the production seems more like a garish pantomime, with flying cooks resembling Peter Pans with little chef's hats, and the giant Madame Bonbonaire a puppet tall enough to reach the top of any beanstalk.

Also troubled by a man was Leanne Benjamin, who made her debut in the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet on Thursday. At the ball, Juliet glances at Romeo, first surreptitiously, then shamelessly. In these moments they fall in love. But Stuart Cassidy was so beguiling as Romeo that one's eye was drawn to him, and that crucial exchange, if there, was lost. So a faultline ran through the evening, despite pas de deux that were poems of passion. As a dramatic dancer, Benjamin is well-suited to MacMillan's theatrical style. She totally immersed herself in the character, but was a Juliet who elicited sympathy rather than a one who swept you into her febrile mind.

'Nutcracker', Festival Hall, 071- 928 8800, 22 Jan; 'Romeo', ROH, 071-240 1066, 18-20 Jan.

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