DANCE / Coming in from the cold: Judith Mackrell on the Cape Ballet's Hamlet

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The Independent Culture
It's hard to judge the fairest way of writing about South Africa's Cape Ballet, which is currently appearing at Sadler's Wells on its first foreign tour. Forced into cultural purdah for most of its existence, the company's main contact with outside influences has been through occasional visiting dancers and video. It's hardly surprising, then, that to relatively spoiled London tastes the company's opening ballet, Hamlet (choreographed by Veronica Paeper in 1992), looks as if it's emerged from a time-warp, rather like some of the Cold War Soviet productions.

It's hard also for me to write fairly about Hamlet since I am personally waiting for the death of the full-length story ballet. Since its apogee in the late 19th century the form seems hardly to have progressed. Apart from some gracefully assured examples by Ashton and Cranko, and some bold, mad experiments by MacMillan, modern examples of the two- or three-act ballet tend to look strained and dull (as bad as novelists trying to imitate Trollope).

The pressure to sustain characters and to flesh out plots rarely allows for more than intermittently interesting dance. The need to be intelligible forces normally inventive choreographers into movements that are formulaic and second-hand.

Paeper has choreographed 15 full-length ballets, though, and is pretty adept at shaping dance into a narrative line. If her version of Hamlet irons out the most interesting complexities - how, after all, can an arabesque reveal that the hero is both mad and pretending to be mad at the same time - Paeper extracts a series of varied love duets, fights and ghostly encounters which move at a brisk pace. She's least interesting when she's dealing with the heart of the play - the moony, clenched-fist solos for Hamlet are not especially convincing. But she's sharp and entertaining when she's focusing on the fringes - Polonius's garrulous mime and odd syncopated footwork, Laertes and Ophelia's overtly incestuous duets. She also achieves a couple of dramatic coups in her group dances. The first transforms the court into a black shrouded huddle, weaving through a sinister mourning dance for Ophelia. The second comes when Hamlet's dead father appears on the battlements to survey the devastation of the final scene. Beneath him is a dark opening into which the entire corrupt court is whirled, spinning and fluttering their cloaks like souls being sucked into hell.

Paeper is helped by a specially commissioned score from Peter Klatzow which orchestrates the story's every climax. But she's badly hampered by Peter Cazalet's designs which deck Elsinore out in an evil riot of pink and gold lurex. She also has a very uneven group of dancers. Juanita Yazbek and Nicholas van de Merwe exude the kind of enjoyably lurid sexuality we usually only see from Bolshoi couples in Spartacus, and some of the players dance with an exuberant attack. But Johan Jooste as Hamlet is a liability. Even though Paeper's choreography is hardly demanding, Jooste's jump still looks wooden, his feet lustreless, his legs without definition. Also, he isn't a big enough actor to fill the part. Wearing a permanently lonely and reproachful expression he wanders through the ballet like a lost extra - a classic Hamlet in search of its Prince of Denmark.

At Sadler's Wells to 9 July. Box office: 071-278 8916