DANCE / Deane shows how to get the corps business right

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The Independent Culture
DEREK DEANE could be renamed Derek Keen: enthusiasm was one of the reasons he was given the job of revitalising the dispirited English National Ballet. Performances over the past few years had been so mocked that the dancers dreaded going on stage. Off stage, being dancers, they couldn't even comfort-eat. Then, in spring 1993, along came Deane, 40 and flamboyant with a blond ponytail, who, when he was at the Royal Ballet, was said to be rather full of himself. He was just what the company needed. In no time at all he raised spirits as well as artistic standards.

Ballet companies move slowly, so for more than a year Deane has had to supervise an inherited repertory. The summer season, which opened at the Coliseum last week with a triple bill, was his first chance to prove himself. Not that he has much choice in dances: ENB is a middle-of-the-road touring company with an eclectic repertory, and Deane, for all his jaunty ambition, has to work within that brief.

Long before Deane came to the ENB, Nureyev told him that the corps de ballet is the heart of a company around which the 'diamonds are set'. No one argued with Nureyev, so Deane set out to drill the corps. For his first ENB triple bill, Deane selected La Bayadere and Etudes to show off the corps with which he has been so vigorously working. For the 'diamonds', he already had Agnes Oaks, Thomas Edur and Giuseppe Picone and harvested a few more as guests from Canada and the US. Deane spots talent miles away. The third piece, XN Tricities, is a special commission from the Italian Mauro Bigonzetti.

During the evening it began to dawn that the programme was familiar but different, traditional but unconventional. Here is a company with character. La Bayadere, an early Petipa classic (1877) with a complicated plot in an Indian setting, is seldom seen in the West. When it is presented, only the third act, 'The Kingdom of the Shades', is performed. It takes place on a misty mountainside and is drenched in romanticism. The ENB has acquired Natalia Makarova's production, which totally redefines Act III as movement in space and time. There is no vaporous mountain, only a dark stage and black ramp down which the dancers pour in dazzling white tutus. It is clean and uncluttered, with dozens of ballerinas in neat rows dancing with parade-ground precision. This version is not about scenery or stories but about the art of dancing, and the ENB's new- look cohesive corps is good enough to honour this.

Edur is an inspired Solor. He has elegance and grace - and a jump so high you can count the days to your grandmother's birthday and he'll still be in the air. The Canadian guest, Margaret Illman, is Deane's kind of dancer - athletic, strong, self-possessed. Her coolness towards Solor presumably springs from the story itself: the dolt was meant to be doped up on opium at the time.

The corps excelled once more in Etudes, by the Danish choreographer Harald Lander. This piece comprises a series of 18 progressive dance exercises, starting with silhouetted dancers lifting their legs at the barre and maturing to a classical vocabulary straight out of Petipa, performed with vibrance by Picone and the guest, Parrish Maynard. The piece is about the same age as Deane, and while he has a lot to say, it hasn't - not any more.

Most vexing is XN Tricities, a piece of European post- modernism - apocalyptic, fin de siecle, brutish, spasmodic, and egalitarian, in that dancers from the corps are picked out for whatever leading roles there may be. It is also rather faddish and may only just make it to the millennium. Giant magnifying- glasses hang from the ceiling, so dancers passing behind them are distorted in the way perfected by the Smirnoff vodka ad, but here not nearly as clearly. The score, by Giuseppe Cali, is equally voguish, consisting of lions roaring, interspersed with the crash of maniacs let loose in the percussion section. It fits the genre, but hardly contributes to the success of the dance in the way that John Adams' exultant Fearful Symmetries did for Ashley Page of the Royal Ballet. Flattering costumes by Kristopher Millar and Lois Swandale make up for the music - brown leotards with little leather skirts that look like chocolate cup-cakes. Alexandra Foley, in a leotard and single long glove, is a knockout in this stop-go dance that requires the women to steer their arms and legs into hairpin bends; any minibus travelling along the body would have to negotiate more turns than during a drive in the Dolomites.

Deane inherited Ronald Hynd's production of The Sleeping Beauty, so he can't be blamed for its provincialism. You'll need a pair of sunglasses to cope with the aquamarines, coppers, golds, limes and purples - and that's only one of the costumes. On Wednesday, the production took the story literally and went to sleep for 100 years. Even the 'diamonds' - the divine and unflappable American Susan Jaffe, charming Oaks and princely Edur - couldn't wake it up. Perhaps it was the heat.

'Sleeping Beauty': Festival Hall, 071-928 8800, Tues to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)