DANCE: An ugly duckling in swan's clothing

Swan Lake Woking Dance Umbrella
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On paper, Scottish Ballet's visit to Woking's New Victoria Theatre is yet another triumph for the organisers of the town's first Dance Umbrella festival. After all, the Glasgow-based company - under the artistic directorship of Galina Samsova - seldom ventures south of the Midlands, and this new production of Swan Lake features dcor and costumes by fashion designer Jasper Conran.

Conran has been flirting with ballet for the past few years: his ravishingly elegant, inky-hued tutus graced David Bintley's Tombeaux (for the Royal Ballet) and, quite rightly, led to further commissions.

In Swan Lake, his second collaboration with Scottish Ballet and Samsova, Conran's preference for the drama of lustrous blocks rather than gaudy distractions of colour remains evident. So too, the painstaking attention to the cut and fabric of each garment - although some of the male dancers' jerkins lift away from the shoulder and neck each time the wearers raise their arms. Of the more properly-fitted and dazzling creations, the princesses' black and gold tutus score points for glamour and ease of movement.

But the refreshing austerity and temperance of Conran's earliest exercises - and which the world of ballet design still seems so desperately in need of - has evaporated. By Act III, he veers towards the indulgences of the catwalk, dressing up the Ambassadors in some ridiculously-themed Ottoman Empire coats, high hats and tapering beards.

Both Conran and Samsova have been sucked into the current trend for ballet as fashion show cum-design extravaganza. And the message conveyed, if only subliminally, is this: why bother with dancing when you can be a clothes-horse?

Indeed, most of Scottish Ballet's performers look more secure as fashion models than dancers. It takes a lot to camouflage the finest choreographic passages in Swan Lake, but the shaky performances and doltish perfunctoryness of nearly all bar Daria Klimentova - a technically immaculate if sometimes rather too plainly spoken Odette / Odile - frequently threatened to hijack the ballet. Hans Nilsson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Freddie Starr (at least facially) is a limp, characterless Prince Siegfried, jolted into brief, bravura dancing life only during the grand pas de deux with Odile. And while Christopher Giles, as Benno, possesses a more pliant technique than Nilsson, his is a classicism marred by fussiness.

Framed by Conran's unimaginative interiors and exteriors - a cardboard cut-out, stencil school of design - the ballet is further robbed of its magic and grandeur. Only the spirited, if occasionally uneven delivery of Tchaikovsky's score, boisterously conducted by Alan Barker, enhances this toytown Swan Lake where even the rocks are neatly stacked.

n At the New Victoria Theatre until Saturday (box-office: 01483 761144) and touring

Sophie Constanti