DANCE / An improper Charlie: Judith Mackrell on Maurice Bejart's double bill at Sadler's Wells

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SIXTY (long) minutes into Maurice Bejart's 'tribute' to Charlie Chaplin (the piece with which he heralds his company's return to London), one of the cast is fatally allowed to remark that 'it's impossible to do a ballet about Mr C'. No other moment in the performance rings so true. There may perhaps be a way for dance to capture the complex humanity of Chaplin's genius. But Bejart, with his incoherent, lazy and threadbare conception, certainly hasn't discovered it.

Characteristically Bejart imagines that the way to his subject is through an indulgent chaos of images and a mess of philosophical babble. At the centre of Mr C . . . are two narrators - Chaplin's daughter Annie and his grandson Charlie Bubbles. The couple ponderously examine their memories in search of the 'real' man while also attempting to stage a 'fictional' performance about Chaplin the star. This allows them to ramble on about the teasing business of life as art and allows Bejart to devote himself to laborious imitations of early Hollywood movies as the pair try to assemble a cast and a script.

Auditions are held, which every dreary theatrical stereotype attends - a limp male dancer with trowelfuls of blue eyeshadow, a fat lady who can't sing, a snotty star. Yet even when Bejart is dealing with the obvious, as here, he still manages to confuse. At times it's clear we're in a fake silent movie world, with subtitled placards carted about the stage and a Keystone cop chasing his quarry round and round. Yet simultaneously five men are executing a ballet warm-up and a couple are reciting fragments of Shakespearean dialogue.

Bejart simply appears to be dredging his mind for available gags and gimmicks and the resulting clutter tells us nothing about Chaplin's Hollywood nor about the private feelings which Bejart presumably holds for Chaplin himself. The material's arbitrariness is made more unforgivable too by the inert way it's handled. Bejart is content to nail a few slovenly moves to each dance cliche and to let his cast mill aimlessly around the stage. When he thinks we might be getting bored he allows a few dancers to trot out some distracting bravura tricks.

Chaplin the actor is mercifully absent for most of this stupefying rubbish, though towards the close one brave dancer dons a bowler hat and attempts the famous shambling walk. When the 80 minutes are up a huge photo of grand-pere Chaplin descends and the dancers, let off the hook, gratefully turn to it and applaud.

Yet if the star is missing from Mr C . . ., she is glitteringly present in Sissi, Bejart's new solo for Sylvie Guillem. When the curtain rises to show her in a Gianni-to-die-for-Versace ballgown the whole auditorium bursts into shocked, seduced applause. For the next 30 minutes she and Bejart collude passionately in displaying Guillem's phenomenal talents. The long beautiful body is angled and twisted through every choreographic hoop and Guillem is mesmerically eager in her desire to reach her public.

Insider references to Giselle and to Guillem's early gymnastic career suggest that the solo may actually be about her - though its ostensible subject is the 'anarchist empress' Elizabeth of Hungary and a mad woman who believes that she's the real Queen. There's more choreographic meat to this than Mr C . . ., but still it doesn't satisfy. Though Bejart runs through a repertoire of mad and queenly gestures the choreography lacks sufficient individual inflection to root it in the two women's personalities. As his phrases chase one ingenious, eye-catching move after another they seem shaped neither by the pressure of the characters' emotions, nor by the music. Although Guillem acts and dances her heart out, the solo remains curiously unrevealing about the ballerina - reducing her instead to a lovely virtuoso cipher.