DANCE / Good God, but an even better devil

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a God and He has a long white beard. When He first appeared in Ninette de Valois' Job in the 1930s, audiences unaccustomed to seeing their object of worship personified on stage were scandalised. But some 60 years later - such is the decline of religion - that the audience at Birmingham Royal Ballet's revival on Wednesday thrilled not only to seeing Him but also to His dramatic dethronement by Satan. One of de Valois' great characters, this seedy devil is metamorphosed into a monster by Michael O'Hare. A creepy spider and sly crab, a ghoul in lime body paint, O'Hare is a nauseating sight as he sits on the usurped throne, nose in the air, glorying in his victory over the Almighty.

When de Valois choreographed Job, based on William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job, she acceded to the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams's request that there be 'no toe dancing'. Instead, she created a dance drama that gives life to the form and composition of the engravings, and sometimes mysticism too, such as when Job sees the error of his materialistic ways. When he rediscovers his spiritual being, God is returned to the throne, solid at the apex of a pyramid of stairs, fringed by butterfly angels and surrounded by exultant worshippers below. Despite the luminous biblical atmosphere, dance drama is no substitute for the excitement of footwork, and one wonders whether in hindsight some compromise with the composer could have been reached so that the dance does not come third to the evocative Blakeian drops and the transcendent score.

The task of matching grandeur of movement to symphonic music is the noble achievement of Kenneth MacMillan and Leonide Massine, whose Concerto to Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 2 and Choreartium to Brahms respectively comprised the rest of the triple bill. Both men's interpretations are sensitive without being too narrowly literal so that the dancing is light and roomy in MacMillan's piece, deliberately virtuoso in Massine's and emphatically uplifting in both.

The company, in bright yellow, brick-red and orange flared Grecian tunics and tights, is so stylish, so cohesive and so musical that it would be no surprise if Concerto became a Birmingham Royal Ballet signature. The dancers, of course, worked with MacMillan before his death last year. Men leap across the diagonal to the crescendo of violins, women toe- walk like 1920s flappers to a tinkling piano. With backs to the audience, dense rows of dancers unite to press an arm forward, out to the side and curved over the head to the dee dee da of the beat. The challenge is to keep time, and not once did the dancers miss a cue. MacMillan's talent for bonding a man and woman in dance inspired a cool and imperturbable strength in Kevin O'Hare (brother of the devil) and Miyako Yoshida, so that you felt they would hardly notice if an errant overhead light came crashing down next to them.

Like MacMillan, Massine in Choreartium is the matchmaker, marrying steps to music (and in 1933 liberating men from their status as pulleys for ballerinas). Men and women stream, race and soar, bursting through the air with dizzying leaps and turns: these are never dance tricks but mesmerising movements that by the end are hypnotic. Lines of men in black with white collars and cuffs cross-cut with women in lilac satin to weave the fibres of a colourful cloth. Choreartium is a deep and resonant piece vividly performed.

The dancers are so confident and capacious that it was hard to understand their wobbly start to The Sleeping Beauty on Monday. Perhaps it was nerves. Peter Wright's Sleeping Beauty, with its glossed bronze and marble sets, seems in the first half to be more a gilded pageant than a classical ballet. Wright's recasting of the benign, divine Lilac Fairy as a walkabout part - a sort of Lyons Corner House waitress with sleeves like big tea towels - seems unjustifiable when less than a week before we saw the Lilac Fairy's pivotal and stirring solos in the Kirov's production. Nevertheless, in Miyako Yoshida Wright has discovered a great Princess Aurora. Although pint- sized, she is supremely classical, as adorable early on as she is grand later, enveloping the part with a shining delicacy and fluidity that ensures tradition continues with this safe pair of feet.

'Show real people to the audience,' is the advice Raissa Struchkova received from her teacher when she was a Bolshoi ballerina. Struchkova no doubt passed this nostrum on to Agnes Oaks when she came to London to stage the English National Ballet's production of Swan Lake. Oaks's Odette/Odile is real people, and when she dances with the gifted and generous Thomas Edur, they are a real couple. Oaks conveys mistrust and vulnerability when she meets Prince Siegfried, passion when persuaded by his love and grief at his betrayal. And she dishes up plenty of sauce for her gander as the wicked Odile. This is an intimate and compact production that gets straight to the point with many lovely sequences while keeping all the highlights intact. Although the dancers rattle and roll at times, and do not always dance in unison, there is a wholeheartedness about this Swan Lake that makes it far bigger than the sum of its parts, far more moving than most Swan Lakes, and a much-needed boost for a company emerging from a fallow period.

Union Dance Company is a small multiracial outfit founded by Corrine Bougaard in 1984 which fuses various art forms, such as mime and theatre, with a variety of dance techniques such as jazz and classical to explain what life is like in the outside lane. Driving Force is for three men and two women, with remarkable control, by Jacob Marley and Bunty Matthias about coupling and uncoupling, separateness and togetherness, and finding out, when you get there, that there isn't anywhere at all.

In a part of Tributo A by Cuba's Eduardo Rivero, 'a woman holds her head and cries', as the Jimmy Cliff song says. Her child has been killed: she is every Sarajevo or Soweto mother whose muddle and heaving grief is one of the dance's most powerful images.

'Sleeping Beauty', ROH, 071-240- 1066, tomorrow and Tues. 'Swan Lake', RFH, 071-928 8800, to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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