DANCE / From the Netherlands, with class

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SOME people are tough on their children. One such disciplinarian is Jiri Kylian, artistic director of Netherlands Dance Theatre, who in 1978 started a company for dancers between 17 and 21 years old. At Sadler's Wells, NDT2, as the youth company is called, performed works by Kylian and others that make no allowances for age. Life under NDT2's proscenium is no rehearsal: it's the real thing. Many young dancers would drown in the large overcoats Kylian has chosen for them, but these are true professionals.

NDT2 is exhilarating to watch because the dancers, with so little experience to draw on, have only their talent and technique to fall back on. And every one of the 14 dancers has plenty of both. But that's not enough for Kylian: he has chosen young dancers from all over the world to feed into his main company because they are good and because each projects a fresh, distinctive stage personality. He has shown us the future - and it shines.

Kylian describes Un Ballo, set to Ravel, as 'a social event or simply a dance'. He created it especially for the company two years ago as if to test the dancers' partnering skills. They pass, with honours. The first couple makes a series of curved movements, the second angles, the third spirals. Then five couples get to know each other - and like each other - at their soiree, elegantly spreading and folding into their moves in their black satin evening dresses and slate waistcoats.

Passomezzo is a witty, ironic piece by Ohad Naharin, an Israeli choreographer with attitude: no-one-likes-me-I-don't-care. So he goes for broke. Let's be brutal to each other in the name of love. The piece, for a man and woman, is set improbably to 'Greensleeves' (you know, 'all my joy . . . my delight'). Like hell. The man is so grimly exasperated that he bobs off on his haunches and tears at his face as though trying to rid the skin of acid. Before long, she is off too, bobbing on her haunches, tearing her face. Such joy, such delight.

In another emblematic phrase, the man squats, back to the audience, arms swinging wildly behind him like a boneless puppet trying to scratch that itch right out of his life. Naharin sees the ugly, and instead of politely looking away, bursts out laughing. Cheeky devil. His is a name to watch for when the relaunched Rambert company performs his work next year.

Stamping Ground is inspired by the Australian Aborigines, and energetically celebrates their freedom to roam, without a cliche in sight, for 50,000 years before the white man arrived. It is one of Kylian's signatures and is regularly performed by the main company. Kylian does not try to reproduce the Aborigines' dance ritual because that would have been regarded as theft and sacrilege. Instead, he invents and reinvents a glorious vocabulary of arched spines, thrusting pelvises, bottoms out and heads back. Legs slide forward, closed hands point downwards, arms push out the air. The dictionary seems to run into volumes. A woman is sandwiched between two men. They lift her so that she swings like a pendulum, one leg to an ear, legs together, the other leg to the other ear. A woman jumps back, and is caught sitting by someone behind the ribboned curtain whom we do not see. It is not often that a piece manages to be choreographically profound and funny at the same time.

The mood changes for Jardi Tancat (Catalan for 'closed garden'), by the young Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. It is a peasants' lament for the rain that never arrives. They sow rows and rows of seeds in anticipation, but never let their disappointment infect their hope. The three men and three women are locked in a losing battle with the barren land, but their spirituality is so poignant that it saddens as well as gladdens.

NDT2's repertory is one of the most vibrant seen in this country because it contains material that has something to say and keeps sight of its central focus with great originality. There are no tricks, but personal expressions and inventions that strike a chord with audiences wherever they are performed.

On a different note, any man who falls in love with a swan deserves what he gets. As if that's not absurd enough, he betrays her by lusting after someone who, granted, looks exactly like her. Fickle fool. He should stick to swans in white who dance so delicately at lakesides and lay off swans in black who dance seductively at balls. A hard lesson learnt too late. By the time he's ready to kiss and make it up to his amour, she's firmly in the clutches of the evil Von Rothbart, poor duck. She should have told her bloke to go jump in a lake. Instead, she does. And the lovesick prince follows suit.

Do we care? Well, yes actually. Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante's partnership in the Royal Ballet's production of Swan Lake is one of such exquisite tenderness that by the end the tears prick, as indeed Petipa intended them to. Mukhamedov is noble and imposing, Durante fragile. Hers is a more human than mystical performance, vulnerable when they meet, passionate when wooed, desolate when betrayed. Mukhamedov barely takes his eyes off her - except, of course, at the ball.

'Swan Lake': Royal Opera House (071-240 1066), Thurs and Sat.

(Photograph omitted)