Dance: It's a nice show, but where's the ballet?

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The Independent Culture
Royal Ballet Triple Bill

Sadler's Wells, EC1

Richard Alston 50th birthday

Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1

You have to hand it to the Royal Ballet: they keep trying. They don't sit on their laurels fingering their backlist of English ballet classics. They do spare a thought for the repertoire of the future, for bringing on creative talent. It's just that the results aren't often convincing. Why? Is there simply a dearth of choreographic talent just now, or is there something wrong with the way they manage what talent there is? There were memorable things in Ashley Page's new work Sawdust and Tinsel, premiered at Sadler's Wells last week. But those were, in descending order of memorability: the music, the sets, and the costumes. The steps? By the time I boarded the Sadler's Wells People's Bus at 10pm for express delivery to Waterloo I could no longer recall a single detail of the dancing.

Page's premise for half-hour ballet is fine: an amalgam of Angela Carter's circus novels and Schnitzler's La Ronde. His five main characters, his "acrobats of desire", begin in two pairs plus a gooseberry, who keep swapping partners until they end up where they started. Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos provides a gloriously decadent melodic backdrop, superbly played. Jon Morrell's vivid Hockneyish set - a swathe of canvas, a section of runway, a segment of ladder - provides pleasingly varied levels for the action. But the action scarcely merits this lavish attention, being thin to the point of sketchy. And by their third performance on Wednesday, the dancers were still looking under-rehearsed.

We have seen better from this choreographer; his last big piece for the Royal was packed with thrillingly inventive leaps and lifts. Page can do it. The company is right to put their money on him. But perhaps that money needs to go towards longer preparation time, not just the icing on the cake.

To be fair, almost anything would look like Instant Whip when set beside The House of Bernarda Alba, Kenneth MacMillan's 1963 ballet based on Lorca's play. Every step is worth a page of prose. In 25 minutes MacMillan develops not only the acrid central plot, but fleshes out each of the five cooped- up sisters and their domineering mother. Single, stark gestures sear themselves on the mind: a pawing at the ground like dressage ponies, a craning and ducking of the head that suggests both girlish bashfulness and preening. No one moves from A to B without a reason; no one flounces a skirt without motive. The effect is riveting, although the lighting was too dim to do justice to Nicholas Georgiadis's set, and on the night I saw it, they fluffed the climactic revelation of the hanged girl.

Nureyev's version of Raymonda, Act III, is rich with steps, too, but in this case it's dancing for dancing's sake. Audiences love this extract for its gilded set and costumes, but also as a technical showcase. But out of the six solo variations, only sparky Laura Morera really flung herself into the party spirit, and the massed Hungarian Dance was miserably lacking in Magyar swagger. It was left to Darcey Bussell to fulfil the ballet's eastern promise with her arch little stampings and handclaps, and a sensuous, almost languid drag in the body. Her partner, Igor Zelensky, who was almost born dancing this stuff, took all his fences like the thoroughbred he is, but looked oddly unengaged.

There was no room for party poopers at the Dance Umbrella show to celebrate Richard Alston's 50th last weekend. The QEH was packed to the rafters to honour this long-serving kingpin of British contemporary dance, and the programme - with Alston pieces dating from the 1970s to the present - fully justified the love and esteem in which he's held. Best was a medley of linked extracts which unwittingly came as a reprimand to those critics (myself included) who have sometimes doubted the strength of the work. Why, when it failed to make an impact then, does it look so good now? It could be that Alston's very English qualities have simply weathered the short-lived fads that have sometimes looked more exciting. Or it could be that Alston has identified all the most successful elements in his work and presented them afresh. Whatever, it was wonderful. On with the medley.

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