DANCE / Foxy end to a poor season

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THE Royal Ballet's 1993-94 season ended last night on a high note: the sound of ballet-lovers trumpeting the end of the most artistically impoverished programme for years. There were no new full-length productions, and only four new short ballets were performed at Covent Garden. Schedules were packed with performances of the disappointing Don Quixote and the sweet but silly Tales of Beatrix Potter, just like the season before. A new William Forsythe ballet and a new showcase production of The Sleeping Beauty were rolled over to the 1994-95 season because of financial problems. American audiences have already seen the new Sleeping Beauty, which was acclaimed on two US tours earlier this year. Nevertheless, one unexpected smash-hit did emerge: it was Ashley Page's sleek post-modernist short ballet, Fearful Symmetries. So it was with high hopes that audiences came last week to the premiere of Renard, another Page short ballet. It is quite different and not nearly as good.

Set to Stravinsky, Renard is a fable about a Cock, his six chicks, a baddish Fox and laddish Goat and Cat. Fox is hungry; Fox wants to eat Cock; Goat and Cat lynch Fox. He dies. That is just about it. At one point, the Cock offers the Fox his 'wives'. This may sound politically incorrect, but not if you had seen the Cock strutting about with a huge red pad representing an erect penis. You too would have agreed to anything for a quiet life.

Page uses a conceit whereby the dancers are travelling players acting the characters. As a result, they seem aloof from their characters, despite excellent moments from William Trevitt as the Fox and Peter Abegglen as the Cock, and wonderfully attacking dance by Stuart Cassidy as the Cat and Adam Cooper as the Goat. Page wisely steers clear of anthropomorphic mannerisms, but fails to invent anything more imaginative. Although there are high-speed chases and a brutal murder, there is little tension. The only drama is wondering if the four on-stage singers have enough air in their small cage.

Best of all is Bruce McLean's set, with a backdrop of broad washes of red and purple. A steep ramp leads to a raised platform, on which the chicks are cooped up in a mesh cage. These are no free-range hens. Only the costumes look out of place. Colourful and witty they may be, but their Seventies sensibilities make the production look old-fashioned. Renard is light and mildly amusing, but what is the point of it?

Renard shares a bill with David Bintley's Tombeaux, an appealing English neo-classical ballet which will still be performed when Renard is nothing more than a memory. Frederick Ashton's faultless - if slightly dull - A Month in the Country, based on Turgenev's play, was presented with Tracy Brown as the frustrated mother. While she is probably a better actress than Sylvie Guillem, who danced the role in March, she lacks the glacial glamour of Guillem that attracts you to the character's plight. She falls for her son's feckless tutor and has her heart broken.

A former ballet dancer called Amanda Miller has started her own contemporary dance company, the Pretty Ugly Dance Company, which made its UK debut last week. Miller is an American who came to Europe in 1984 to join her compatriot, William Forsythe, the creative genius who runs Frankfurt Ballet. She became Forsythe's deputy, but left last year with no hard feelings to concentrate on her own choreography. She has created two pieces, My Father's Vertigo (1992) and The Previous Evening (1993), for London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Miller's work is so close to the cutting edge that it is in danger of falling off. Props are weird: a tailor's dummy of clear plastic with skeleton's legs hangs from the ceiling; three tombstone-like sculptures slice the stage along the diagonal. She prefers contemporary composers, such as John Zorn, whose music for Night by Itself extends into some indeterminate post-New Age genre. Arto Lindsay's live band played a mix of tape and eclectic sound for Two Pears, and Lindsay was also responsible (with Peter Scherer) for the pulsating heat of Pretty Ugly, the earliest (1988) and best of the three pieces. Clothes appear to have been spooled out of some overstuffed cupboard to look like anti-costume costumes.

Variations are added to a basic grammar: torsos are the anchor as bodies fly every which way, propelled by wild, whipping arms, fierce kicks and camel-bob heads. Dancers are sometimes as rigid as wooden dolls and sometimes as bonelessly floppy as marionettes. They roam the stage, barely connecting with each other, each in his or her own wacky world. Night by Itself is hard-edged and brittle, Two Pears more gentle and fluid and Pretty Ugly hot and exuberant. But all are dark, stark and anarchic. All three pieces are so similar that you wonder why they are on the same programme. Miller's good pieces for LCDT show that her range is not as limited as it now appears.

(Photograph omitted)