dance If the coat fits

Birmingham Royal Ballet Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture
"Awful ballet, lousy, rotten, old-fashioned, terrible ballet," was Balanchine's opinion of his 1929 narrative work, Prodigal Son. During the late Sixties, Edward Villella - the New York City Ballet dancer for whom Prodigal Son provided an enduringly triumphant signature role - was asked to try and secure Balanchine's permission to stage the work. "Do something else," suggested Balanchine, before wearily relenting, "You know, ballet is like old coat between old friends. I lend you old coat."

This week, that old coat has been the centrepiece of a Birmingham Royal Ballet triple-bill in which it is flanked by two tailor-made works - Matthew Hart's Street, created 18 months ago, and John Cranko's Pineapple Poll, made in 1951. Unlike the easy-wash, pop / jazz rhetoric of Street or traditional English comedy of Pineapple Poll which BRB wear so well, the weighty biblical drama of Prodigal Son hangs like a coat which doesn't quite fit - its central role a few sizes too large for Michael O'Hare, who seems neither rebellious enough to have hopped the nest, nor innocent enough to be corrupted by the characters he subsequently encounters.

And neither the skull-capped miscreants who form the busy band of drinking companions, nor Monica Zamora's suitably statuesque but hardly overpowering Siren suggest a big, wide world which is nasty or tempting enough to result in the Son's downfall. When O'Hare finally crawls homeward to be reunited with his father and sisters, we should register his exhaustion and shame. But instead we're left pondering over the mysterious fact that, despite having been stripped and robbed, he has somehow acquired a new pair of stretch underpants.

More suitably cast was Joseph Cipolla, as the dashingly handsome Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll. A convincing object of desire for Sandra Madgwick's soubrette-ish Poll and the swooning lasses of Portsmouth docks, Cipolla illustrates Belaye's stern but tolerant nature, most especially in the scenes where, in order to enjoy the company of his pretty airhead fiance, Blanche (Simone Clarke), he must endure her fusspot, chaperon aunt, Mrs Dimple (Chenca Williams). Charles Mackerras' collage of Sullivan's music from the Savoy operas is as jolly and light as the ballet's nautical nonsense and, miraculously, the dancers turn the dated frivolity of the whole thing into a worthwhile exercise.

n BRB is at Sadler's Wells (0171-713 6000) to Saturday

Sophie Constanti