Dance: Damn fine coffee; damn poor choreography

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The Independent Culture
Pacific Northwest Ballet

Sadler's Wells, London

Hobson's Choice

Hippodrome, Birmingham

We know that Seattle is the home of grunge and great coffee. Now we learn it's pretty hot on ballet too. The Seattle-based Pacific Northwest troupe made its London debut this week, confirming what we have long suspected from the few-and-far-between sightings of American ballet that we get here - the big US companies have technique well and truly in the bag. The footwork! The fluidity! It's this kind of stylish assurance that periodically prompts Derek Deane of English National Ballet to kick up a stink about British standards of classical training (Pacific Northwest has its own feeder school too).

But however technically dazzling, dancers must have something decent to dance. And Pacific's opening programme, billed as "Great American Choreographers", simply didn't live up to its name. "The great Balanchine and three wannabes" would have been nearer the mark. For this outfit is so in thrall to the late Mr B and his sleek neo- classical abstraction that it seems content to churn out chain-store copies of his style as well as the real thing. Quaternary, a piece by Kent Stowell who runs the company, spooled out Balanchinesque steps by the yard - but left only an impression of schmaltz that made the women seem vacant and the men look naff. Even Rachmaninov's piano music came across as glib.

The other new works tried harder. In the Courtyard claimed to be about choreographer Donald Byrd's "acute responses to turbulent social issues". But what this boiled down to was a spot of relationship trouble that Relate could have sorted in a jiffy. Two pugnacious women and their athletic men slug it out between the four of them, at one point interlocking in a promiscuous spidery heap then apparently wishing they hadn't. Kevin O'Day's Aract (read it in the right accent and you get "Our Act" - oh dear) was mercifully less specific, and benefited from a terrific punchy score by Graham Fitkin, played live. But for all its little surprises (a ballerina shot like an arrow from a bow upon four men's shoulders; another projected from the wings as if from a hidden trampoline), the women's pin-up poses, high kicks and sleazy hip thrusts stamped it Balanchine- in-Hollywood through and through.

It was a relief to get to the real thing: The Four Temperaments of 1947, Balanchine's manifesto as it were, whose stark, dense shapes, while claiming to be about nothing but dance for dance's sake, carry strong emotional resonances which leave an audience feeling braced and challenged. Here Pacific Northwest's ballerinas - all lean and leggy, as Mr B approved - came into their own. Fiercely characterised, scrupulously exact, even the chorus was superb in its gaunt, high-stepping, wading-bird formations and sphinx-like cool. Seattle can keep turning out ballets, and frothy coffee, ad infinitum. But it can't hope to do better than this.

Ballet donned a cloth cap a few days later when Birmingham Royal Ballet revived Hobson's Choice, David Bintley's two-acter based on Harold Brighouse's Edwardian play. Storytelling is Bintley's forte, and here he delivers the cockle-warming tale of the bootmaker's daughter and the boot boy with admirable clarity as well as imaginative relish. As the most popular work Bintley has made (or that anyone's made, for that matter), most of the Brummie audience was seeing it for the second or third time, giving BRB a good deal to live up to. But this revival comes with an A-starred cast.

Leticia Muller is the dutiful, on-the-shelf Maggie, who takes her marital and business prospects in hand by proposing to her father's lowly but talented employee Will Mossop. Crushingly dour and prim in the opening scenes, Muller sows the seeds of Maggie's true feistiness with the most subtle facial nuances and petticoat flicks, so when she finally flowers into love and an open-hearted pas de deux, it's quite unforced. Michael O'Hare's neat little Mossop is Chaplinesque, saved from cuteness by the sheer masculine vim of his hoofing. And what steps Bintley gives him to do! From Lancashire clogging through reluctant- romantic to all-out knees up. And in the crowd scenes you get a pirouetting Sally Army and a clutch of Morris Men to boot. Paul Reade's lively score delivers more chest-filling Northern swell than a Hovis advert and no one leaves this ballet not grinning from ear to ear.

`Hobson's Choice': Liverpool Empire (0151 709 1555), 26 & 27 March.