DANCE / Action stations: Judith Mackrell on BRB at Birmingham Hippodrome

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The Independent Culture
KURT JOOSS' seminal pacifist ballet The Green Table has been a staple of the world rep for years - except in Britain where no one seems to have had the wit to stage it. Yet if Birmingham Royal Ballet's recent acquisition of the piece looks laggardly, their timing is astute. Not only is there a harshly contemporary relevance to Jooss' vision of a world carved up by war, but this pioneering piece of political dance theatre chimes exactly with the current appetite for dramatic, issue- centred dance.

Made 60 years ago, The Green Table is almost naive in its moral archetypes. Yet in moments of vividly precise choreographic detail, it is able to transcend the obvious and the trite. The ballet opens with a grotesque expressionist flourish as a group of diplomats, politicians and businessmen crowd around a green baize table to plan for war. Wearing viciously caricatured masks they appear sinisterly comic, yet in their fawning, gibbering, grasping gestures evil and cynicism are blatantly at work.

The bulk of the piece is a series of war episodes through which stalks the near-medieval figure of Death. In every scene of battle, mourning or separation, Death tramps after a new victim, terrifying in his relentless, slamming gait yet remotely, gravely tender. As a group the soldiers look grim, with ape-like torsos bunched over Nazi goose-stepping, yet Jooss also individualises them as lovers, heroes and sons. The women tend to be more predictable - a grieving mother or a tender young girl. Yet Jooss also creates a female partisan figure whose fierce, clenched power matches some of the early heroines of Martha Graham or Mary Wigman.

The work's sting lies in the closing scene where the politician vultures return to squabble over the spoils. It's a measure of the dancers' committed performances and of Anna Markard's scrupulous direction how strong a sense of pity and betrayal you feel. The dancers fare less well in the company's other new acquisition, Ashton's 1946 Symphonic Variations. This is a daunting work for any cast, because of its revered status in the Ashton canon and its legendary first cast led by Fonteyn and Somes. It's devastatingly exposing, too - six dancers on a bare stage moving through some of Ashton's most refined and lucid choreography. What we saw on Monday night was a group of very mortal performers, doing their best but suffering a bad case of nerves.

It's a piece for dancers to grow through, however, and BRB may yet find a cast who are up to its demands. In David Bintley's Flowers of the Forest, though, they have a ballet popular with audiences and clearly loved by the dancers. It's one of Bintley's most unforced works - a poem to traditional Scotland, set to music by Arnold and Britten with more than a nod to Ashton in the movement. At its best the choreography lives up dashingly to the high romanticism of its music and theme. The dancers are touched by a collective sense of exhilaration and the men look lovely in their kilts.