DANCE / From Birmingham with love

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The Independent Culture
ON THE night last October that Kenneth MacMillan died backstage at the Royal Opera House, the Birmingham Royal Ballet was performing his version of Romeo and Juliet in Birmingham. The dancers were more shocked than most at his sudden death because less than a month before he had been in the city energetically rehearsing the ballet with them.

This week the company performed MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet in London and you felt everything was as he would have wanted. It was as though the dancers had searched their memories for every detail of what MacMillan had said in rehearsals last year so that they could produce a special tribute to him now. This is the best we can do for you, they seemed to say on Wednesday, and set about a sustained explosion of MacMillan's genius in an epic performance.

This production is pure velvet: rich, lush and tasteful, balancing simple Renaissance formations in the ballroom scene, for example, with intricate and memorable pas de deux for Marion Tait and Robert Hill as the leads so that Shakespeare's language is translated into dance with as much, if not more, beauty and drama. Romeo and Juliet is still very popular, perhaps because of the enduring appeal of sex and violence. Mercutio (a bubbly, cocksure Vincent Redmon), wounded in a fierce sword fight with Tybalt (Peter Ottevanger) stumbles flat-footed towards his assailant, thrusting an angry sword in Tybalt's face before it clatters to the floor and he falls after it, never to get up again.

MacMillan, the master of the pas de deux, allows Hill to slip his hand between Tait's legs to rest on her upper thigh. He lifts her high above his head to express soaring bliss in the balcony scene early on. Later, in her bedroom, Hill uses the same movement to pass Tait across the back of his neck, releasing her to slide down his arm. This is a way MacMillan transforms love into sexual passion, and Tait and Hill are riveting.

The three hours passed in a flash, unlike at The Place, where minutes crawled by like hours during Dance Workshop Europe, turning me into a Euro-sceptic in the process. The European Commission funds an annual project for choreographers from four EC countries to make work around a theme, in this case 'removals'. The pieces are then performed in the four countries - Britain, Belgium, France and Germany. Who needs European unity when on this island we have such fine companies as DV8, Motionhouse, Kim Brandstrup's Arc, Laurie Booth, Adventures in Motion Pictures and many others? Or perhaps the commission chose the wrong countries. Olga Roriz and Rui Horta, both Portuguese, have presented excellent work here. It is a sad comment that the most entertaining moment came from a member of the audience who pretended to choke on the dry ice that came wafting from the stage in the last piece.

Dance Workshop proved to be a misnomer. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned idea of steps that blossom into sequences? There was one dancerly piece, Composite 2, by Veerle Bakelants of Belgium, in which three woman in slime-green jumpsuits ignored each other for 25 minutes as they rolled around. This is dance that belongs in the Jurassic Park of the Eighties, when contemporary dance was no doubt beautiful to do but ho-hum to watch. It put people off going to dance then and will do nothing to recall them now.

Heirs and Graces by Claire Russ of Birmingham was probably the most intriguing piece but again was rather short on dance, unless you count the dancers' swirling orange rubber cloaks. In these cloaks they become members of a royal family, waving at the imaginary crowds with studied irony. True to the theme, the cloaks were removed to reveal blue swimsuits with bumps and cut-outs in interesting places for a pas de trois that was more menage a trois - one man, two women. These costumes were also removed. Oh Europa]

There was some dance in Urs Dietrich's piece from Germany, but its essence was mime - catching birds, releasing birds, turning birds into tossed balls. The two men inevitably turned into birds themselves with fine physical rolls and flaps. Christine Marneffe of France started her piece, when the dry ice lifted, in the final scene of Casablanca, or so it seemed, but this plane never found freedom: it landed in an unspecified detention centre where people were treated like cargo and a string of beads could have been a packet of cocaine. Who knows? Roll on Dance Umbrella in the autumn, where dance means dance.