DANCE / Exit the ugly duckling: Judith Mackrell on two favourites of the classical repertoire

A FLOCK of girls in snowy white tutus, shimmering on point and pretending to be swans is everybody's first idea of ballet - and without Swan Lake in its repertoire no company can hope to please. This ballet must exist in more different productions than any other and for several years English National Ballet was saddled with one of the worst. Makarova's 1988 version took Swan Lake by the scruff of its neck. Wall-to-wall dance numbers with minimal characterisation squeezed out most of the story-telling while the traditional sets were replaced by a deadly efficient series of projected slides.

Last year, in desperation, ENB commissioned a new production from the veteran Bolshoi ballerina Raissa Struchkova and it now has a Swan Lake that's entirely straightforward and sweet. The designs are simple gothic fantasies and there's been little tinkering with music and plot. It is, though, a very Soviet version, so while all the best loved Petipa / Ivanov highlights have been retained, the choreography is also based on the Gorsky and Messerer productions of the early 20th century. The dancing is thus more beefy than in the St Petersburg original (with a few extra tactlessly thrusting pirouettes) and the ubiquitous Soviet jester (loathed by Western purists) capers unengagingly through the action.

He capers with spirit though, and on Tuesday night the rest of the cast were also firing on more cylinders than of late. While the Swans still need some brutally intensive coaching, the National dancers stamped and twirled with panache, and several of the soloists showed not only gumption but style. At the ballet's centre was also a classic portrayal of the Prince. Thomas Edur, in the role of Siegfried, partnered his ballerina Agnes Oaks with passionate, flattering care. Dancing on her own, Oaks was nothing special as Odette / Odile - her steps were fine but they weren't phrased with that sense of music or drama that can elevate disconnected movement into metaphor. In Edur's elegant arms however she became fluid, poetic, memorable.

Closely tailing Swan Lake as the world's most popular ballet comes Sleeping Beauty, which is currently being danced by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. This 1984 production is staged by Peter Wright yet its identity is mostly the creation of designer Philip Prowse. His black and gold sets and his gorgeous, gilded costumes ravish the eye yet they also threaten to stifle the choreography. On Monday night they certainly overwhelmed the dancers in the ballet's Prologue, who seemed stricken by a collective fit of nerves. When the six Good Fairies danced their solos of blessing for the baby Aurora each one stumbled over her steps, and when Marion Tait exploded on the scene as Carabosse it was hard to believe they could ever tip the balance of the story against her. Darkly, glamorously evil, Tait was vivid with spite and the more precise her mime, the more lacklustre appeared her opponents.

Tait looked like the star of the whole ballet until Miyako Yoshida, as Aurora, took the stage to begin the long, slow torture of the Rose Adagio. While most ballerinas make you hold your breath as they endure one exposing balance after another, Yoshida behaved as if it was all a specially arranged treat, poised every time in a perfect attitude, turning her head to share her pleasure with you.

Despite her tiny frame, Yoshida can do almost everything - balances, jumps, turns, brilliant allegro, adagio. But she's a dancer, not a gymnast and in her performance nuance after nuance emerged new and glittering in the choreography. The naive loveliness of the Act 1 gave way to a closed, dreamy serenity in the Vision Scene while in Act 3 she seemed to fill the stage. Every movement was an amplification - growing through the music, extending way beyond Yoshida's actual length of limb. Around her everybody else became more correspondingly grand and free.

'Swan Lake' Festival Hall to 7 Aug (071-928 8800); 'Sleeping Beauty' at ROH to 3 Aug (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

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