DANCE / Amazing Technicolor scream coat: Washington Ballet

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The Independent Culture
THE Washington Ballet made its UK debut last week with a brand of ballet not often seen in this country. British ballet looks 100 years old; even modern ballet seems at least 50. The Washington Ballet's presentation is unconventional by English standards. Founded in the 1940s, it has 22 dancers but neither orchestra nor sets. Because it is so small, it can't mount a traditional Swan Lake or Giselle. Nor can it afford a Jasper Conran or Gianni Versace to design costumes. So it commissions new works specially for itself. As a result, its repertory is young and fresh, and breathes without all the customary life-support systems. There is no company like it in this country, although Christopher Bruce, the new head of Rambert and a part-time choreographer for Houston Ballet, is planning to introduce these conventions here.

So far, so good. The problem with the Washington Ballet is the variable standard of works, as seen in two programmes at Sadler's Wells. Two pieces are good, the rest are poor; and one, In the Glow of the Night, is too shallow to

be suited to European tastes. The see-sawing choreographic pattern means that the dancers, fine executors of the classical style, sometimes have little to do. It also means that the season is thin on dramatic intensity so that, by the end, one leaves feeling rather empty.

The best pieces are Hearts of Light and Overstepping. The former is by Graham Lustig, a 39-year-old retired British dancer who is now resident choreographer for the American company. This is his first work for them. The dancers are translucent, like ghosts who cast long shadows. All you can see are their souls. The moves are intricate and elegant to the point of fragility. Michael Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli is rich music for dance, dividing neatly in parts into which Lustig pours the many sections of his exceptionally harmonious and subtle ballet.

Monica Levy creates a spectral moonscape for Overstepping. Four men and a woman enter with the lovely loose shoulders of jazz dance. But this is no team expedition - the dancers do their own thing. Well, not really, because they do the same thing. But they move so sharply that the phrases look aggressively individualistic. The ending is effective, with the men taking turns to lift the woman so that she bobs up and down on the horizon as the light fades.

More troublesome are the pieces by Choo-San Goh, the company's associate artistic director before his premature death in 1987. In the Glow of the Night is showy and garish. Royal blue and cerise leotards spread into an amazing Technicolor scream coat. His other piece, Fives, is a company signature, which is probably why it is included. It looks striking, with a black backdrop and dancers in a siren red which bleeds on to the floor through good lighting. There is a move for the couples in which the women are held on the men's shoulders in mid-dive position. The men virtually have their noses up the women's backsides, which is laughable. Apart from this, there is nothing really wrong with it, but Fives, created in 1978, has passed its sell-by date. If a company's raison d'etre is the performance of new works, the repertory must remain fresh in its own terms. The other pieces, especially Nils Christe's, were awful and absurd, with dancers' knees knocking and fists clenching. I didn't mind the mournfuless of his Quartet No 2 to Shostakovich, except it is so derivative. Jiri Kylian of Netherlands Dance Theatre and his protege Nacho Duato of Spain have been doing something similar for years.

Sasha Waltz, the German dancer and choreographer, brought Twenty to Eight to The Place's Turning World international festival. It is about five disparate and desperate people who share a flat and their neuroses. A man is so bored by a flatmate's stories that he develops rigor mortis; a narcissist checks his hair reflected in the back of a spoon; a couple predictably makes love on the kitchen table; one despairing member of the household puts her head in the fridge, which makes a change from the oven. These quirks are funny and work well. But the problem with the kitchen setting is that the souffle never rises above anecdotal realism. The attempts at sequences flop spectacularly, but there's still enough to chew on.

Washington Ballet: Wycombe Swan, 0494 514444, Mon & Tues.