DANCE / At panic stations: Judith Mackrell on timidity and temerity from English National Ballet at the Royal Festival Hall

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Michel Fokine, the choreographer most frequently credited with bringing ballet into the 20th-century, was a reformer of the aesthetic school. Prizing simplicity and naturalness, he banished empty virtuosity from his choreography. Disdaining excessive spectacle, he struggled to establish a dramatic unity between his dance, music and design. Disliking cults, he even set his faith against any ballerina who tried to exercise her traditional privilege of wearing her best jewels on stage.

Yet, for all his radicalism, Fokine still made ballets for stars. The astonishing steps that Nijinsky danced in Le Spectre de la rose, or even in Petrushka, may not have been standard bravura tricks yet they demanded exceptional physical prowess. The ballerina roles in Les Sylphides, in Spectre or in The Dying Swan may not have had the crowd acknowledging climaxes, the passages of divine technical display that Petipa allowed, yet they depended on artists of the magnitude of Karsavina and Pavlova to bring them to vivid poetic life.

It was unfortunate then that at English National Ballet's all-Fokine programme on Monday night, stars, or even competent dancers, were in such short supply. In the opening ballet, Sylphides, three of the four principals performed the choreography as if it were a melancholy technical exercise. Agnes Oaks, although physically suited to the ballet's delicate period grace, moved with a prissiness that was matched by an expression of irritatingly dainty anguish. Tim Almaas, replacing an injured Thomas Edur as The Poet, looked terminally worried about where he was going to put his feet. And Irina Roncaglia's potentially pretty style was marred by the sense that she was apologising for every step she took. Only Maria Teresa Del Real gave the impression that she was inhabiting some kind of Romantic reverie. She worked hard for lightness and delicacy while allowing little tremors of mischief and hints of dreamy fantasy to animate her face.

In Spectre de la rose the two dancers looked even more clueless. Renata Calderini, as the Young Girl quickening to her first erotic awakening, simpered vapidly throughout, while Christian Duncan as The Spirit appeared to be in a blind panic. At the time of its first performance (1911) this ballet seemed to incarnate Nijinksy's special genius - showing off the massive jump, the headily exotic presence that made men and women alike fall violently in love. It was an act of quite staggering unkindness then to cast the young and inexperienced Duncan in this role. Patently under-rehearsed, desperately ill at ease, struggling with almost every step, Duncan turned the stuff of exquisite fantasy into a dancer's most painful nightmare.

Things improved slightly in Scheherazade. Even though most of the company perform the ballet's orgiastic climax like schoolchildren imitating a porn video, Carlos Acosta as the Golden Slave was at least capable of making you gasp. He's no actor but he's young enough and stunning enough to look effortlessly glamorous and, with his double barrel turns, his beautifully powered acrobatics and whizzy pirouettes, Acosta just about carried the whole ballet.

It was Ludmila Semeniaka dancing The Dying Swan, though, that prevented the evening from degenerating entirely into a bad joke at Fokine's expense. It's a brief slip of a ballet, made for a star, yet it wasn't just Semeniaka's ability to command the stage that made her look as if she'd come from another planet; it was her ability to enter into the style and detail of Fokine's movement. The elegant fluttering arms that are wracked by spasms of pain, the resisting head and tremulous footwork all became in her performance not merely potent images of a dying bird but also a distillation of every grand and fated heroine who suffered and was sacrificed in 19th-century ballet.

Further performances at the South Bank until 20 August (booking: 071-928 8800).

(Photograph omitted)