DANCE / Garden rocked by flurry of new work

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The Independent Culture
If you blink you might miss the fact that the Royal Ballet is being a tad adventurous with new works. Along with the great wodge of Cinderella, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and The Sleeping Beauty there have already been two triple bills this year. The second, which opened on Thursday, includes two pieces not performed umpteen times before. Apart from Mikhail Fokine's The Firebird, danced for the 168th time, the bill provides a world premiere for David Bintley's Tombeaux, and the seventh performance of William Forsythe's brutal In the middle, somewhat elevated, first seen a year ago.

Tombeaux, an abstract ballet for 16 dancers, draws on the jauntiness of Balanchine and the airiness of Ashton, and may have been so enthusiastically endorsed by the audience because it continues the lyricism most have come to expect from the Royal Ballet. It certainly is no departure. Nevertheless, Bintley, a resident choreographer, brings a small new dimension - an athleticism in the pas de deux that is so subtle as to pass off as traditional. Bruce Sansom grabs Viviana Durante by the waist and flings her over a hip. He lifts her over his head so that she hangs upside down. Only his strong arms and her fearlessness stop her from landing on her head. Such boldness was exciting to watch.

The work, to music by William Walton, is a mystical piece set before a hanging garden (painted by Patrick Kinmonth) with delicious costumes by Jasper Conran. The midnight-blue tutus were baked in an oven so that the borders look as if they have been dipped in baby-blue powder. So now we know why his designs are exalted on the catwalks. Durante's dark black tutu is edged in light black. And there was I thinking that black was black.

Haute couture was followed by the haute modernism of In the middle, somewhat elevated, set in a rehearsal room savagely lit from above. Dancers in tights and backless turquoise leotards barely look at each other, except with sideways glances that say: 'I don't want to know who you are but I like the way you move, so dance with me.' The mood is impersonal, the movement arbitrary, the music a synthetic industrial pounding. Pelvises slide forward and backs arch; a leg kicks high to sweep past an ear; heads make a series of sharp turns. The style is jazzy, but, unlikely as it seems, is danced on pointe. Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope have star billing, but all nine of the dancers relish the piece. The power with which all take their bodies to the limit reveals that if the Royal Ballet dares, it wins.

The Firebird is a cheeky choice. Stravinsky's first ballet, a collaboration with Fokine and Diaghilev, can be seen as a forerunner of the Bolshoi style. With the Russian company ending its season tonight, the Royal Ballet's Firebird has a we-too air about it. Trying to out-Bolshoi the Bolshoi? Who knows. But the colourful pageant, with its blasting trumpets and dozens of dancers in costumes representing a panoply of nations, hit the deck running.

Last week was Bintley week. His second full-length ballet, The Snow Queen (1986), adapted from Modest Musorgsky, was performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. It is a perfectly respectable work, but two aspects are a little odd. First, the set design (by Terry Barlett): Act I is a fairground in a Russian village that looks as if it bumped into Picasso during his black-and- white period. Ten years later, we are in the home of Gerda and her fiance Kay (on whom the Snow Queen has her evil eye), which has more wood panelling than a Swedish sauna. Another oddity is the switch in styles. Two-thirds of the piece is folksy, but the last act has wandered in from a Petipa ballet.

The nuptials in the 'sauna' act are interrupted by two white Wolfmen, envoys of the Snow Queen (Ravenna Tucker). They scratch Kay's (Michael O'Hare's) heart and eye with a shard of broken mirror and leave a chip on his shoulder. Newly rude, he finds himself alone - at last, for his solo has the ballet's most heroic steps. He is ready for his queen (or is it queen mother?) and they dance a pas de deux of discovery, mixing innocence and experience in a strong Oedipal brew.

Things hot up in the ice palace in an elaborate sequence in which Tucker is more sensuous than wicked, the vamp to his romantic boy. Gerda (Sandra Madgwick) comes to reclaim her man, but would you be interested in a frump called Gerda when you have a Madonna to dance with? Neither is Kay.

Triple Bill: Covent Garden (071-240 1066), Wednesday, and 10, 15 March.

(Photograph omitted)