DANCE / Joining the movement: Stephanie Jordan watches London City Ballet toughen up its repertoire for its Sadler's Wells triple bill

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LONDON City Ballet is the triumph of Eighties arts business. From its beginnings in 1978, with just eight dancers giving lunchtime performances, it flourished through the financial optimism of the last decade, and by now has a broad repertoire of classics, revivals and new ballets and, if you count the high number of star guest performers, an ensemble of some 50 dancers.

But the company has endured second-rate choreography for far too long. This season seems a welcome change, with the introduction of the hardy choreography of Ashton and Balanchine into its repertory. We must also remember that London City Ballet tours its own network of venues and exposes an important new public of its own to live ballet.

Donizetti Variations isn't great Balanchine, but it is good Balanchine, and a reasonable choice: a piece that hasn't been in any British repertory and that offers fine pure dance opportunities for nine supporting soloists as well as a leading couple. As an example of Balanchine engaging with the 19th-century style of Bournonville, it is full of testing jumps and beats and, especially, variations on frog leaps that pull the feet high under the body before the spring into the next manoeuvre. There are oddities, even jokes, as in the trio where the central woman insists on hopping up on to pointe when the others are down and vice versa, or later when a turn and arabesque down a line of three couples repeats again and again, to dizzy extremes.

The cast was led by Eva Evdokimova and Paul Thrussell, Evdokimova making the whole affair more Bournonville than Balanchine and looking effortful - a big mover but without enough heart for Balanchine speed. Yet, of all the dancers, it is she who demonstrated nuance in phrasing, gradations in pressure of footwork and the sparkling attention to beat that gives you the full, energising effect of musical / choreographic counterpoint. On the other hand, Thrussell, a much younger, easy- mannered dancer, looked bland.

It is this sort of bland phrasing that lets down the company in Ashton's skating ballet Les Patineurs. Deceptively tricky, this gives the dancers an important technical challenge and, mostly, they convey a sense of enjoyment in meeting it. But they are talented enough to be taken much further into its artistry. I wish too, after all these years of seeing the piece on both Royal companies, with the same pretty William Chappell designs, that it could be dressed afresh. New visuals, and we'd have a new view of Ashton's all-important steps.

The 1956 The Witchboy, last seen in Britain in 1976, is the oddest choice for revival. Based on the American folk-tale of Barbara Allen, it tells how young Barbara falls in love with the Witchboy creature who is lynched by the small-minded Smokey Mountains community. This is a well constructed piece with a catching title and a sting in the tall when Witchboy is brought back to life, but it is too laid-back as dance drama, with much attitudinising and few movement values.

Today it is hard to imagine why this ballet was ever as popular as it apparently was, and the artistic director, Harold King, is mistaken in believing that it develops his dancers' dramatic talents. It is the movement-led ballets that are the most likely to refine and challenge his company. And though the progress of London City Ballet remains extraordinary, now is the time for a far more developed policy on company style. For that to happen, what they choose to work on is crucial.

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