DANCE / Star-crossed and starry: Judith Mackrell on the English National Ballet's productions of The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet at the RFH

Every year, English National Ballet thumbs its nose at superstition by refusing to throw away its Christmas tree till long after Twelfth Night. At the Royal Festival Hall, London, the company's snow- and sugar- frosted production of The Nutcracker continues its annual run until 22 January, with a constantly changing roster of casts to keep the dancers sane.

There are, in fact, so many cast changes that followers of ENB may be pushed to recognise a familiar face on stage. In addition to all the dancers recently brought into the company by the new director, Derek Deane, the season has been pepped up with international guests. Tuesday night thus saw American Ballet Theatre's Susan Jaffe as the Snow Queen, with the Royal Danish Ballet's Thordal Christensen as the Nutcracker Prince (replacing another guest, the Bolshoi's Yuri Klevstov), plus one of ENB's more or less permanent dancers, the Brazilian-born Cecilia Kerche.

This rent-a-star policy can look glamorous on paper, less so on stage, and Christensen proved to be a lanky, dozy-footed Prince with a disposition towards melancholy and a style of partnering that made you occasionally grit your teeth with anxiety. Jaffe, however, whisked cleanly and elegantly through her role, dignifying some of the tackier moments of Ben Stevenson's choreography with good grace. And if Kerche's Sugar Plum Fairy lacked a glow of benevolence and fantasy it was danced with unarguable power and assurance.

The Royal Ballet has also been playing safe in the post-Christmas season with a short run of Romeo and Juliets. Last Thursday Leanne Benjamin danced her first Juliet, casting the role in a peculiarly childlike key. It's one of the brute facts of dance that a performer's body is what makes the first and most immediate impact on a role. Benjamin is tiny - though by no means fragile - so when you first see her bouncing around with her Nurse she has no trouble looking exactly like a just-pubescent girl.

Benjamin's build and extraordinarily high jump also make her look weightless when she's partnered by the various men who mark out her destiny - intensifying the impression that she's a child in an adult world. But if this apparent vulnerability gives extra poignancy to the ballet's close - Juliet really does look too young to die - it means that the ballet's darker, sexier resonances are lost. When Benjamin refuses to let Romeo leave after their first night together, it's as if her girlish will, rather than her body, hungers for him. She hasn't graduated to being a woman.

All the same, the innocence of Benjamin's portrayal made a harrowing contrast last Thursday with Stephen Jefferies' Tybalt. Jammed into a permanent rage of hatred, greedy for vengeance and blood, the latter seemed a phenomenon, a force for evil against which the lovers had no chance. Even his death, made vividly obscene by Jefferies, asserted that violence was more real and more powerful than love - giving an extra grim pessimism to the ballet's surface story of star-crossed romance.

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(Photograph omitted)

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