DANCE / Floating in emptiness: Judith Mackrell reviews the Washington Ballet at Sadler's Wells

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Over the last few years the British dance market has become glutted with Russian ballet. Small nomadic companies have been touring the country with unflagging regularity, trading Russian glamour and classical tradition for hard Western currency. It's good then to see Sadler's Wells beginning to import some less predictable dance - beginning a year-long international series of 'Dance without Borders' with a two- week season from the Washington Ballet.

On paper it also looks good that Washington are dancing entirely new work. But their repertoire seems to be no more alert to the late 20th century than some of the creakier 19th- century classics presented by the Russians. All four works in the first programme are modern ballet written to formula - derivative in their movement, anaesthetic in their emotions, slumbering in a creative coma.

The opening piece, Graham Lustig's Hearts of Light, is of the floating chiffon school, where self-consciously exquisite women twine pliantly around big serious men. Lustig is a competent and fluent choreographer who gives his dancers elegant shapes and long swoony phrases to make - but his fluency is a curse. The movement floats beside the music (Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli) without stumbling over any disturbing feelings, any surprising rhythms or any dangerous moves. It's all so prettily self- satisfied that you find yourself itching to give it, or something, a kick.

Christopher Doyle's Ne Me Quitte Pas is all breast-beating, fist-clenched emotion. A man and a woman in the grip of a heartfelt song by Jacques Brel clutch their heads and make anguished attempts to part. They are hopelessly unsure of whether they're in a long-term relationship or not, and hopelessly in need of some proper steps.

Paired with Ne Me Quitte Pas is another moody piece - Nils Christe's Quartet No 2, which displays its seriousness through painfully angled torsos and sinking falls. It's the best-danced piece of the evening but also the most simple. The choreography mimes the unsettlingly driven rhythms of Shostakovich's String Quartet No 2 with metronomic literalism - taking a slow four counts over nearly every phrase.

The programme inevitably lightens up for the last item, Choo-San Goh's In the Glow of the Night. Here a sunset beams out from the backdrop and the first dancers appear in pink and orange-streaked leotards. They are, though, blown away by some people in dark blue as the backdrop deepens into night. Also as the sonorities of Martinu's First Symphony become more sinister, some tough men look as if they might be blowing up a storm. But you know it's only a matter of time before the orange dancers return and the sun rises. And sure enough, they do and it finally does.

Sadler's Wells, London EC1, to 11 June then moving to Wycombe Swan for 13 and 14 June

(Photograph omitted)

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