DANCE / An exhibition of itself: Judith Mackrell on self-parody and sentimentality in the Australian Ballet's final triple-bill

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The Independent Culture
Something as artificial and inbred as ballet ought to generate wonderful comedy, yet too often the jokes at its expense tend to be clod-hopping Sugar Plum Fairies or crude parodies of nancy boys in tights. Antony Tudor's 1938 Gala Performance, performed by the Australian Ballet in their final triple bill, is, though, a treasure-house of witty dance sallies. The acute observation of gesture and mannerism that enriches his serious pieces is here employed to construct a merciless string of jokes about the style and mores of the ballet business - jokes which are made by an insider but are clear enough for anyone else to get.

The scenario revolves around a Russian, an Italian and a French ballerina who each typify a national character and style. The context is, as you would expect, a gala performance in which each ballerina flaunts her individual speciality as she jockeys for star status. The Russian ballerina (Sian Stokes) is every Moscow dancer that you've ever seen - flaunting her technique and ensuring that everyone appreciates what terrific stunts she's performing. Her pirouettes revolve slowly and pedantically so that she can flash a smile at each turn. Whenever she prepares for a special jump or balance, her torso bends double under the burden of her artistic temperament and as she finishes a phrase she adopts a pose of shameless exhibitionism: back arched, wrists exquisitely cocked, mouth snarling with triumph.

The Italian (Lisa Pavane) is all stately elegance and icy self-command. Conscious only of her sublimity, she expects rapturous applause at the mere pointing of her exquisite foot. When she dances with her partner (Greg Horsman), she totally ignores his presence, expecting him to scurry round and supply whatever support she needs. The French (Justine Miles), on the other hand, is all kisses, giggles and pretty footwork, her fingers constantly brushing her face in delicate narcissism, her eyes beaming seductive glances at anyone she happens to see.

What makes Gala Performance so satisfying, and so enduring, is that the jokes are anchored in the dancers' technique rather than in easy comic stereotypes. You end up with a succinct little lesson in style as well as an atomisation of the foibles of individual ballerinas. And the dancers in this production pitch their performances perfectly - they don't give into the temptation to over-act, but at the same time make it clear they are having a wonderful time.

This ballet has stayed so fresh since Tudor first made it for his own tiny London Ballet that it is extraordinary how neglected it has been in this country. None of our own companies dance it - and as with most Tudor choreography we have to rely on foreign companies to give us our precious but infrequent glimpses of it.

In their final programme the Australians also give an exemplary, accurate performance of Ninette de Valois's Checkmate, first made in 1937. All the details, the inventive hand- and foot- work, have been preserved as well as the grand drama of the action. And especially good is Lisa Pavane as the black queen whose angled limbs are steely with a cool, grim resolve while her eyes glitter with hungry ambition.

With its uncluttered choreographic lines and its chic abstract designs, Checkmate looks far more modern than Of Blessed Memory, a new ballet by Stanton Welch. The stage is framed by Art Nouveau shrubbery in queasy blues and greens and the tone of the choreography is a long way the wrong side of sentimental.

It's a piece celebrating mothers in which Welch's own mum, ex- ballerina Marilyn Jones, stars. Around her revolves a cast of boys and girls who grow up into blithe and loving adults. At frequent intervals everyone exchanges cooing looks. There are some passages of rather lovely movement in this piece and some fine dancing. It's also good to see an older dancer on stage. But you would have to search long and hard to find any emotion resembling real motherhood amidst all this lithesome bliss.

Further performance tonight at the Coliseum (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)