Dance GISELLE / ASHTON PROGRAMME Royal Ballet, London

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The Independent Culture
In the six years since her elevation to principal status within the Royal Ballet, Darcey Bussell has sustained a fan club whose members - both press and public - tend towards the kind of blind adulation normally reserved for showbiz celebrities. Certainly, Bussell's is an exceptional talent. But it is yet to be consolidated and refined, as well as matched to the necessary acting skills which, so far, have too often eluded her.

Last week, she gave her first Giselle on home turf, bringing all the habitual refulgence and shortcomings of her dancing to the role. A tall, broad-shouldered ballerina with long, powerful legs which can slice the air as deftly as oars cutting through water, Bussell is also capable of the rapid movement and easy elevation which her solidly built frame would seem to dictate against. The neatness and speed of her footwork were gratifyingly apparent in the tight, criss-crossing steps and jumps of Act II, and almost served to cancel out the jarringly lugubrious pace of her dancing in Act I.

Initiated, after death, into the supernatural province of the wilis - the jilted brides brigade that stalks the forest between dusk and dawn, ensnaring any man who dares to enter - Bussell seems more at home than she did as lovestruck peasant girl in the real world. As a wili, Giselle is the epitome of tragedy made beautiful, and Bussell plays her with that paradoxical but essential combination of detachment and passion which sets her apart from her sister wilis. The automatism of the spirit Giselle is more suited to Bussell's dance-without-trimmings technique than the initial character study of a peasant girl whose fateful love for a disguised aristocrat gives the ballet its context.

Although Bussell has the sloping shoulders and tapered feet depicted in lithographs of some of the most famous ballerinas of the romantic era, she isn't a natural Giselle. Hence her Albrecht, Jonathan Cope, has his work cut out in guiding her through Act I, accommodating her every whim. And while we know that Giselle is happy, innocent and in love, a simple girl with a weak heart whose greatest pleasure is to dance, Bussell's coy ingenue is both inconsistent and unconvincing.

But the biggest disappointment is her mad scene. Here, in place of the utterly confused and desperate Giselle, with wild eyes glinting between strands of matted hair, a barely dishevelled Bussell offers a soliloquy of disconnected actions, at one moment suggesting the pangs of indigestion, at the next a hint of toothache or dizziness. Perhaps Bussell's blueprint is all wrong; or perhaps she just needs a lot more time to mature as an actress.

In the last of its tributes to Frederick Ashton, the Royal Ballet has brought back some of the revivals featured in the season's earlier Ashton programmes. The current mixed-bill - La Valse, the Thais pas de deux, "Air" from Homage to the Queen, Rhapsody and Daphnis and Chloe - opened with debuts by Benazir Hussein - as a principal waltzer in La Valse - and Sarah Wildor - as the shepherdess Chloe opposite Bruce Sansom's goat- herd Daphnis. Hussein possesses enough flexibility in the upper torso to look comfortably elegant - but not spectacular - in Ashton's expansive, swirling sea of waltzing couples. La Valse relies as much on its corps as on its central sextet for effect. And as the whole stage space becomes gradually engorged with sound (Ravel), motion and ghostly shadows, you are swept into the unstoppable flow and forcefulness of its arm-swinging turns.

That same side-to-side phrase of movement ends Daphnis and Chloe - only here it brings almost an hour of dancing to a close. As the kidnapped Chloe, Sarah Wildor, hands bound, registers her fear and sorrow and conveys all the joy of her reunion with Daphnis. It is one of the Royal Ballet's more inspired examples of casting - not that a dancer's glaring unsuitability for a role - viz Bussell as Giselle - should ever be allowed to stop her having a stab at it, even if she misses first time round.

n Season ends 5 August; Ashton programme tonight only. Booking: 0171- 304-4000

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