DANCE / Sharply drilled: Judith Mackrell on the return of the English National Ballet

Act 3 of Petipa's La Bayadere is the perfect shop window for any ballet company aiming to parade its classical credentials. The famous trance-inducing opening in which waves of dancers fill the stage is one of the repertoire's most exposing tests of the corps de ballet. As 24 dancers step bravely through their collective arabesques, their backs and arms curving in pliant unison, any jelly thighs or faltering balances are brutally apparent. The ballet's solos are also ferociously demanding show-stoppers which have to be danced with a dreamy confidence appropriate to the ballet's visionary world.

By choosing Bayadere to open their triple bill, English National Ballet are throwing down the gauntlet. They may have become a joke during the worst of their recent doldrums, but they are now signalling their comeback. Certainly it's years since the corps have looked so sharply drilled as on Monday night, when they made their entrance with the discipline and determination of a Normandy landing. Most of them also looked rigid with concentration, though, and you began to feel that, while everyone was diligently monitoring their steps, the life of the dancing, its breath and its music, was far from their minds.

This was also true of guest artist Margaret Illmann, who cleared every technical hurdle as Nikiya without intimation of character or poetry. Marta Barahona as the first Solo Shade was one of the few to get under the work's skin. Another was Thomas Edur as Solor, who appeared to inhabit the ballet's own world of lost love and exotic fantasy. He partnered Illmann with passionate grace, manoeuvring her like a precious object. In his own dancing he breasted the music like a swimmer. You didn't so much register jumps and turns as the exhilaration of one moving in another element.

The dancers' relief when they got to the second ballet X N Tricities was palpable, even though aspects of the work are as tiresomely 'modish' as the title. Giuseppi Cali's score is a fashionably ill- assorted mix of musical styles, while Mauro Bigonzetti's choreography filters jazz and martial arts through ballet steps brutalised into fighting moves. The dancers threaten to swipe each other with ear-high extensions, their arms are tensed for karate chops. But if it's a bit like watered down William Forsythe, the movement is also funky and energetic, and the men in particular dance as if they are ready to die for it.

The ballet's main selling point has been its design, huge lenses that hang down and amplify the dancers. Unfortunately, only those sitting bang in the centre of the auditorium get the effect of this costly exercise in whimsy. The programme ends with Harald Lander's mass company class, Etudes. I haven't watched all of the company's 716 performances of the work but I've seen enough to feel I don't need to clap dancers for what they do every day in their studios.

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