DANCE: Cinderella; City Ballet / Royal Ballet, London

The ballet pound in Londoners' pockets is under siege this Christmas by companies offering Christmas treats. Although not as bad as some years, when as many as three Nutcrackers have been on offer, we still have a situation in which four companies have only two stories between them: The Nutcracker and Cinderella. We all know that productions differ hugely, and that it's fascinating to compare and contrast, yet nobody but a critic is likely to fancy Cinderella twice in a season - let alone twice in a day.

On Tuesday afternoon, Harold King's all-new City Ballet of London, which sprang fully-formed from the wreck of London City Ballet, revived Matthew Hart's Cinderella at the Peacock Theatre. Hart's first attempt at a three-act ballet was originally conceived as a much darker work and his vision of the dysfunctional family is easily sustained by Prokofiev's menacing score. Hart's Cinders, danced by Tracey Newham Alvey, is repeatedly kicked and slapped by her stepsisters (danced by women) who go unpunished by her drunken father. Even in the ballroom she is sneered at and gossiped about until rescued by the princely Michael Nunn, guesting from the Royal Ballet.

One is always surprised at this company's ability to bounce back after every knock but the real surprise is that they should do so with such charm and polish. Despite a frighteningly short rehearsal period, a tiny budget and a dozen new and untried dancers, Harold King has revived a Cinderella of grace and glamour. He may not be able to afford or attract the very best dancers but at all levels those he has are well-rehearsed and never fail to project a sweet and confident charm.

You can understand Matthew Hart's eagerness to be rid of the Ugly Sisters en travesti when you see what has become of these ladies at Covent Garden, danced on Tuesday night by David Drew and Oliver Symons. Normally reliable sources assure us that Ashton and Helpmann were hilarious and touching in these roles and even in recent memory the likes of David Bintley and Jonathan Burrows have brought the shy sister poignantly to life. But current performances lack this sweetness. Like an old bottle of scent, the essence has evaporated leaving only a sickly smell in the box. It may be that the old gags are tired and unrepeatable but, if that is the case, why is Peter Abegglen's disdainful dancing master such a comic masterpiece?

Never mind. We were compensated by Darcey Bussell dancing with a handsome broom and posing with a scrap of finery to evoke the secret games of a solitary child. Her girlish beauty is tailor-made for Cinderella and hard work has given her frisky little pas de chats the deft speed of a pocket ballerina. She is more naturally at home in the adagio sequences of the third act: sleek and sure, she takes the balances with an unhurried ease.

Which production should you see? Covent Garden has a grander theatre, better dancers, better choreography and more laughs. City Ballet of London's Cinderella is cheaper and very often a great deal prettier.

City Ballet of London, Peacock Theatre, London WC2 to 4 Jan (0171-314 8800). Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London WC2 in rep to 4 Jan (0171-304 4000).

Louise Levene

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