DANCE / Can they do the cancan?: Judith Mackrell on Cape Ballet's Orpheus in the Underworld

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The Independent Culture
Veronica Paeper's Orpheus in the Underworld is a ballet with a mission to reassure. Dance-shy audiences will be instantly put at ease by choreography that makes its points several times over, by dancers who mug every gesture to death, and by helpful devices that stop you having to consult the programme notes. Key words are mouthed at critical moments, like Orpheus announcing the arrival of Calliope with a silently groaned 'Mother'; and the chorus marches off at the end of Act 1 under the banner 'Save Euridice' in case anyone's not grasped the plot.

Of course the whole ballet is meant to be a jolly romp and Offenbach's operetta provides Paeper with a mischievously inverted scenario that's potentially ripe for laughs. Lounge lizard Orpheus is delighted to have Euridice taken off his hands by the King of the Underworld. She in turn is thrilled to stay with gorgeous greaseball Pluto. Only Public Opinion, here personified by Orpheus' mother Calliope, thinks the couple should be brought back together.

There are some genuinely comic moments. Updated to a 1930s fashion-plate setting, Paeper's version opens with an arrestingiy still stage, the cast frozen in prancing poses like mannequins, tricking the eye into wondering who is and who isn't real. Soon after comes a nicely judged duet for the unhappily married couple, in which Euridice keeps wriggling out of Orpheus' grasp as if permanently irritated by his touch.

But too much of this over- long ballet allows fatuousness to override wit and cliche to replace comedy. In a work that's essentially a game of sexual jockeying, the jokes would have been funnier if some of the movement had been genuinely erotic, instead of the characters just sighing longingly and fluttering their hands. It would have been enlivening, too, if Paeper had not trotted out every jazz-age stereotype in the book, serving up chorus after chorus of lip-pouting flappers and pelvis-toting mafiosi

To be fair, I can't imagine any choreographer successfully fleshing out this ballet at its current length (2 1/2 hours), particularly when saddled with Michael Tuffin's irritating arrangement of Offenbach, which seems to reprise every arch tune over and over again. What makes so much of the humour, and the choreography, seem stale is simply that we see it all repeated so often. The dancers, though, sustain the ballet through its longueurs with admirable gusto, compelling you to forgive much technical shoddiness through the sheer force of their goodwill. I particularly liked Phillip Boyd's dapper Orpheus. Though he's no athletic virtuoso, he danced with a stylish good taste that befitted his character's egregious charm.

I must add that most of the rest of the audience appeared to love everything about the ballet. Paeper was obviously giving them what they wanted, and they will doubtless be anxious to welcome her company back.

Last perf tonight, Sadler's Wells, EC1 (071-278 8916)

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