DANCE / Agony and the ageing process: Louise Levene reviews Darcey Bussell's Aurora, plus work for older dancers

ONLY a sadist could conceive a ballet in which the ballerina has to perform an agonising sequence of slow balances within minutes of stepping on to the stage. Cruel and artificial, it exemplifies ballet at its most unforgiving - and its most exhilarating. Last Saturday night a pink-tutu'd Darcey Bussell - looking all of 15 - stepped into the spotlight at Covent Garden and began The Sleeping Beauty's dreaded Rose Adagio. A shaky start became a promising debut that displayed her sure technique and sweet personality. Her long limbs were a joy to watch as she picked her way through retires like a fastidious flamingo. It was her second three-act debut in four weeks and she inhabited the character of Aurora just as freshly and convincingly as she had danced Cinderella. Less convincing was Jonathan Cope, who sketched the prince's romantic agony with peevishness. He made up for it with smooth dancing, considerate handling and Byronic good looks.

Superficially, youth and physical perfection appear to be the prerequisites of dance. Yet on the South Bank this week two companies were striving to prove that this is not so. CandoCo presented Flying in the Face of . . . in which David Toole, who has no legs, wheeled himself furiously around the stage. Suddenly he lurched to the floor supported by his sinewy arms and began a duet with a fellow dancer, forming an intriguing two-torsoed creature. The choreography for the able-bodied members of the cast was an inconsequential mishmash of dance cliches in tie-dyed pyjamas, but there is huge potential for disabled performers in the more vertiginous branches of physical theatre.

CandoCo shared the billing with Nederlands Dans Theater 3, a group of over- forties. Of the two pieces on offer on Monday, Jiri Kylian's No Sleep Till Dawn of Day for Martine van Hamel, Sabine Kupferberg and 18 chairs was the more interesting. They slapped their limbs, goading them into new positions, using the chairs as a barre, a platform, a shelter. The cheapness and availability of dining room chairs may account for their near constant presence in modern dance. Pina Bausch has a lot to answer for.

The wish to put older dancers to good use is a laudable one, but do we need a company to do it? Dancers in their forties are happily accommodated by most companies without needing to be marginalised in their own geriatric ghetto. Youth does have the edge in some departments. You won't catch the oldies whizzing through the Don Quixote pas de deux. This showstopping divertissement formed part of a great value bill by the Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler's Wells. Miyako Yoshida and Tetsuya Kumakawa displayed shameless audacity and speed. Kumakawa, still only 20, has an elevation that seems to know no limits. It is rare to hear a British audience applaud individual jumps, but he bounded heavenward with such saucy virtuosity they didn't know whether to cheer or laugh out loud.

They were brought down to earth by Kurt Jooss's legendary anti-war piece, The Green Table. Created in 1932, the ballet satirised the hypocrisy of world leaders forever arguing at conference tables while war raged. Sadly relevant to every generation that has danced it, the work retains much of its impact despite the heavy-handed symbolism. It opens with masked, morning-coated statesmen crowding around the table. They trigger a sequence of episodes involving soldiers, mothers, whores and partisans urged on by an inspirational figure waving a flag, while their dances are shadowed by the skeletal figure of death (superb Joseph Cipolla). One by one they are taken, the rallying banner now a bloodied rag that Death wields as his scythe.

'The Sleeping Beauty' continues in rep at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 to 3 April (071-240 1066). The Birmingham Royal Ballet is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, to 13 February (071-278 8916).