DANCE / A troubled night's Sleep: Judith Mackrell on the English National Ballet's Savoy Suite at the Savoy Theatre

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The Independent Culture
The newly restored interior of the Savoy Theatre is exquisite. Its burnished silver walls and deco bas reliefs gleam under a softly diffused light, deep crimson paint matches the variegated reds of the curtains and seats. The stage too is exquisite - and very small - which is both a help and a hindrance to English National Ballet as it launches its new London season on its boards.

Choreographer Wayne Sleep may count himself lucky that he has so tiny a space to fill given the apparent lack of steps and ideas at his command. The pretext for his new ballet Savoy Suite is the history of the theatre and its founders Gilbert and Sullivan. Thus Carl Davis's score combines bits of Sullivan's music, while Sleep assembles scenarios relating to the collaborators.

To call the result a 'suite' is to gloss over the skimpy disjointedness of the whole. Not only does it flit shiftlessly between numbers - ballerinas jostling up against gondoliers and three all-purpose little maids. But it's a fatuous assortment of gimmicks and styles - flourescent painted dancers spell out the title; a piano revolves centre stage; and gondoliers heft their poles.

At times the work feels like an excuse for Sleep's own comeback to institutional ballet. Not only is he the work's star, but he seizes every chance to display the dapper pirouettes that were always his speciality. Turns are also what he's best at choreographing, and most of the dancers do little else but whizz around with him. Thin, derivative and mildly amusing, Sleep's ballet just about passes muster as a diversion for a special occasion.

So undemanding is the choreography that it's not surprising to see the dancers in Olga Roriz's The Seven Silences of Salome fall on the movement like starving men. Combining the twitchy gestures and angry physicality of New Wave modern dance with a base classical vocabulary, Roriz constructs a series of solos which flay each dancer's body and soul. Hands drub neurotically or claw at the skin, as one by one the seven men leap and twist and dash themselves against the floor.

So dangerously pitched is the movement that it somtimes comes close to a rant. But its drama is sustained by Nuno Carinhas's powerful staging in which the sculpturally lit dancers are dressed in a beautiful mix of bag-lady grunge and Japanese couture.

Several of the cast are also a revelation, including Denzil Bailey, from the company's corps who moves with a riveting, tensely-reined aggression and Thomas Edur, who scorches the air with the headlong fury of his dancing.

Which could not be further from the cast in Frederic Franklin's staging of the grand pas from Petipa's Raymonda, who on Tuesday night pussy-footed around the choreography with a blandly smiling politeness. Tamas Solymosi and Agnes Oaks actually made something of the steps. But the rest showed little sense of the elegance, grandeur and mystique necessary to the occasion. A kind excuse may be that the tight squeeze of the Savoy stage inhibited their attempts at a grander style. What seems more likely is that a larger space would have swamped the dancers' timid offerings.

English National Ballet, Savoy Theatre, WC2 until 24 July (071-836 8888)