DANCE / Codes, graces and fractured steps: Judith Mackrell sees Viviana Durante perform and Jasper Conran design in the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill at Covent Garden

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The Independent Culture
The history of 20th-century experiment is embraced within the first and last ballets of the Royal's current triple bill. The Firebird (1910) shows Fokine breathing expressive life into the over-upholstered and academic inheritance of late 19th- century classicism, while William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1988) is a ruthless, late-20th-century spurning of narrative and order. All the inbuilt codes and graces of ballet are ripped apart to create a fractured, post-modern play of dance gesture - the movement empty of meaning except for its abrasively confrontational stance.

In the centre of the programme, though, lies David Bintley's new ballet Tombeaux which is far more content to remain within familiar dance tradition. Set to Walton's Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, the movement is as fluent and intelligent as the rest of Bintley's work. At worst this can mean unchallenging, even glib choreography but, at best, this ballet is inventive stuff which captures the music's restless interweaving of Walton and Hindemith's styles - the pastoral and the unsettling, the elegiac and the sparse.

The immediate visual clues to the ballet's mood are supplied by Jasper Conran's designs (his first for ballet) which are at once sinister and lush. A frontcloth of falling leaves gives way to a backcloth of bare, forked trees looming against a rumble of storm clouds and a wash of electric blue and green. The women's blue and black tutus, the men's black leotards are as flatteringly perfect as you'd expect from Conran and the only questionable note in the set is the stylised arch which dominates the back centre stage. Fashioned in the shape of a lion's head, its open jaws providing an entrance and exit for the dancers, it sets up a distracting subtext of questions - are the dancers flitting in and out of the maws of death?

Nothing like this seems to be addressed by the dance, though, which has material enough supplied by the music. Bintley has cast the ballet around a central couple (Viviana Durante and Bruce Sansom) with a corps of four men and 10 women, and he exploits every numerical combination to sustain a constant expansion and contraction of scale - the concentrated energy of a single figure exploding suddenly into a stageful of wheeling dancers.

The movement passes deftly from a curved, spacious lyricism to a driven, unrelenting urgency, from moments of virtuoso exhilaration to figures of melancholic exhaustion - Durante sighing into a soft, skewed plie in Sansom's arms. And if some of this lacks a forceful originality of emphasis or detail, there are sharply memorable moments like the ending where the music settles to a serene close and the dance literally unwinds itself. Locked in a tight, spinning embrace Durante and Sansom seem to separate in a suspended slow motion - she still turning on her own momentum, he striding out and away from her in ever-increasing circles.

If Tombeaux showcases the traditional elegance and fluency of the Royal's dancers (Sansom in particular has rarely looked better), Forsythe's ballet screws them up to a very un-British attack. New to the cast this season is Jonathan Cope who dances accurately, but hasn't yet risen (or sunk) to the choreography's required level of aggressive narcissim. Adam Cooper also makes his debut as hero in The Firebird with a demeanor of hesitant but princely good manners while Fiona Chadwick returns to the title role with a dangerous glowing energy. With her sure musicality she extracts all the pouncing staccato violence instinct in the choreography and ensures that, for all its occasional plodding naivities, the ballet retains its charge of exotic period magic.

Continues in rep at the Royal Opera House (Booking: 071- 240 1066).