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DANCE / Clicking fingers, stamping feet: Judith Mackrell on illicit love among the gypsies in the Royal Ballet's new production of Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House

BY ANY standards, Don Quixote is a silly ballet. Its story - only glancingly indebted to Cervantes' novel - follows the most elementary of romantic plots. Its score, by Minkus, is at best rousingly danceable, at worst repetitive doggerel. And its choreography, Petipa re- worked by Gorsky re-worked by Baryshnikov, is packed with fake-Spanish fireworks. If you look for the mythic resonances of Swan Lake, the musical sophistication of Sleeping Beauty or the choreographic poetry of Bayadere, then Don Quixote stands exposed as a very second-division 19th-century ballet.

It is, though, a ballet to have fun with, both for dancers and for audiences, and with its swaggering choreography and knockabout mime it stands or falls by the brio and gaiety of its performers. In theory it's a good moment for the Royal to acquire the work, for there are so many smart young dancers in the company, champing to show off their stuff, that the ballet's opening run can boast seven separate casts.

The first, on Wednesday night, was headed by Irek Mukhamedov as the impoverished Basilio and Viviana Durante as his betrothed Kitri. Happily in love, the pair are thwarted by Kitri's father, Lorenzo, who wants her to marry the addle-headed and unsexy nobleman Gamache. To escape his orders the pair run away to a gypsy camp, encounter the pale and dotty Don, and with the latter's muddled aid finally trick Lorenzo into letting them marry.

The dancers who perform Kitri and Basilio barely have characters to act, they simply have to make us fall slightly in love with them. Bolshoi- trained Mukhamedov is on home ground with all the ballet's diversionary jumps and turns and he adeptly positions himself so that his slightly past-its-peak technqiue looks fresh and strong. He thus seems to have all the time in the world to be gallant, flirty and funny - to play with the choreography and romp into everyone's affections. Durante though is so busy trying to imitate a smouldering Soviet-cum- Spanish ballerina that she finds little warmth or humanity in Kitri. She all but snaps her spine with the force of her back-bends, and flourishes her fan and kicks her legs as if it were a life or death challenge. The results can be startling and sometimes lovely but they are cool and ultimately dull.

Many of the other dancers (assorted matadors, flower- girls, gypsies, etc) have the same problem. They click their fingers and heels, arch their torsos and parade their legs with gusto, but the feeling is of performers so strenuously shedding their English inhibitions that they've forgotten how to be people. Some of the mime roles also need loosening up, with David Drew and Iain Webb indulging in some irksomely exaggerated horseplay as Lorenzo and Sancho Panza. Derek Rencher is a convincingly moony Don, though, and Stephen Jefferies steals the stage at Gamache. Bald, powdered, padded and bejewelled, the mad glint in his eyes bespeaks a hilarious paranoia and he waddles and postures through the action with almost pitiably daft arrogance.

Given that the Royal are desperate to revive their ailing audience figures, they will be relieved that Wednesday's packed house clapped zealously at every cue. Undoubtedly the ballet will improve as the dancers settle into it, and an already established pleasure is Mark Thompson's design. Junking the ballet's usual travel-poster setting, he has created a spare, elegant set of pale interiors and intense ochre and siena courtyards. You can feel the heat and scent the dust. In fact, with a few deft strokes Thompson achieves what the dancers haven't yet managed - which is create a credible Don Q for the 1990s.

In rep at the Royal Opera House (071-240 1066)