DANCE / Finding comfort in a pious dance with the devil: Judith Mackrell reviews the Birmingham Royal Ballet's revival of Ninette de Valois' 'masque for dancing' Job

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IN ITS current revival of Ninette de Valois' Job, Birmingham Royal Ballet approaches hallowed ground. Not only does the work deal with the gravest of Old Testament material, its creators, John Piper, Vaughan Williams and De Valois herself, are among the most revered names in 20th-century British culture. If a performance were to hit the wrong note or go off the rails, some very important toes could get trodden on.

Some large expectations could also get shattered, because the ballet (properly termed a masque for dancing) hasn't been seen in this country for over 20 years. On Saturday afternoon, however, the company not only showed itself equal to performing the material, it also confirmed that the work (now 62 years old) remains touchingly alive.

Vaughan Williams' score - stern, fantastic and lyrical by turns - sounds even more dramatic in the theatre than in the concert hall, while Piper's versions of the Blake illustrations which inspired the work are equally monumental. They hit you first as huge dynamic, textured tracts of paint in which stippled browns and swirling greys capture the mobility of Blake's line. On looking closer, landscapes open up that are studded with Blake's pastoral and religious symbolism.

De Valois' choreography, though, is the greatest revelation. In keeping with the composer's wishes that no 'toe dancing' should appear, she abandoned conventional dance virtuosity in favour of a broad new palette of movement. God (delicately cited as 'Job's Spiritual Self') is the still centre of the piece but everyone else gets their own style of dancing.

Gently buoyant folk steps characterise Job's family; wily and unctuous gestures the hypocritcal Comforters; grotesque angularities the Three Pestilences. Various angels and devils are gathered into large tableaux whose fluid lines perfectly mimic Blake's own - though even here De Valois adds details of her own, a hand on a breast, a torso curiously twisted, that deepen the composition and individualise the people within it.

Striding through these serene sculptures is the figure of Satan, for whom De Valois created an extravagantly ugly and freakish vocabulary. What's striking here is not only how forcefully the clawed hands, the brutish energy, the pounding jumps and flattened angles particularise a driven, malevolent and puckish devil, but how vividly they summon up the period when Job was first created - contemporary with Martha Graham and not so long after Nijinsky's Rite of Spring.

The most astonishing quality of the piece, though, is how successfully serious it is. If there are moments where the pace flags, or where the choreography's innocence verges on the nave, most of it achieves a religious intensity without falling into either piety or face-saving irony.

Vaughan Williams himself recognised that this was a balance difficult to achieve. When the original idea for the ballet was rejected by Diaghilev in 1927, the composer reacted with some relief. 'Can you imagine,' he wrote, 'that dreadful pseudo- cultured audience saying to each other 'My dear, have you seen God at the Russian ballet?' '

If De Valois got the tone right when she took the project on, so, on the whole, do Birmingham Royal Ballet's dancers - managing to look grave without being glazed, reticent without being dull. Michael O'Hare as Satan (competing with history-book memories of Anton Dolin and Robert Helpmann) walks off with the greatest honours. Getting deep inside the skin of the role, he comes across as turbulent, charismatic, cunning and bad - a big, mercurial anti-hero rather than a convenient religious cipher.

'Job' is at the Royal Opera House, London (071-240 1066) on 28 & 29 July.