DANCE / Lustre in a Land of Snow

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PETER WRIGHT'S 1984 Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet is as traditional as Christmas pudding, and could have been as stodgy. But the sweet, fresh pupils of the Royal Ballet's junior and upper schools blend with the strength of the company to whip up the lightest of mousses.

Wright has kept close to the sumptuous Imperial Russian staging of 1892, and with the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, has placed the ballet in the Biedermeier period. So precise are the details that even the waddling Christmas angels look as if they are wearing brocaded sofas.

The Nutcracker is odd in that it provides two quite different experiences - a glittering second half follows a festive first half. In the first part, the children do the job of grown- ups: they are playful but ordered at the Stahlbaum's party, militaristically neat in the battle of mice and soldiers, and so magical in the Land of Snow that the sequence is pure romance. Naomi Reynolds, a slip of a girl, is adorable as Clara, with a fine feel for drama. Her awe as Herr Drosselmeyer (Stephen Wicks), the benign manipulator, causes the set to fly, and her tears as the nutcracker toy-turned-boy is slain, manage to be moving. Quite an achievement for a young child playing to an audience of 2,000.

The grown-ups take over in the second half to round off this tasteful, well-mannered showcase production. It is here that you could have heard a pin drop on Friday. And in the Arabian dance during the divertissements, you could have heard a chiffon veil fall, so much mystique did Genesia Rosato and her three consorts bring.

The ballet essentially belongs to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Lesley Collier) and the Prince (Irek Mukhamedov) for their famous grand pas de deux. On the face of it, Collier and Mu khamedov seem an improbable couple - he is a passionate Russian, she an older, refined Englishwoman. But their rich traditions balance so surprisingly well that their pairing is inspired. Collier's purity and lyricism, with its luxuriant whipping turns, beautifully echoes a style that is giving way these days to something more robust. Mukhamedov contrasts this airyness with the exaltant style of the Bolshoi, his former home. His particularly clean lines, combined with the white heat of his tremendous stage presence, make the heart sing. He is a truly remarkable dancer who brings sincerity to everything he does.

This year is the centenary of Tchaikovsky's death, and it is no coincidence that this Christmas dance companies are churning out Nutcrackers like

so many cars off a production line. This one has to be the Rolls-Royce: serious, groomed, lustrous and authentic - just what you would expect from the Royal Ballet.

There is also a girl on stage at the Lillian Baylis Theatre in London, where Divas, Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie's unconventional company, were performing on Monday. Except she appears with up to 30 other women. Affirmative action for women? Not really, just No Man's Land, an indifferent piece whose only point seemed to be its title. The women were recruited from health centres, apparently, and moved about more than danced to Billy Cowie's wonderful music, sung in Polish by Juliet Russell, an Enya sound-alike.

Light-hearted and warmly enjoyable is the second piece, Falling Apart at the Seams (so it seems). Aggiss, a singer-dancer, and Naomi Itami, an American opera singer, fuse their art forms with Billy Cowie's rock backing-track to create a wholly beguiling piece that is part rock opera, part Puccini to Pet Shop Boys. 'Is this post-modern or post-post-modern?' Naomi asks. Whatever, it's certainly post-feminist. These beautiful women, with their shiny beehives and long velvet dresses, are barbed about their lives: 'Bed of nails/made for me/Bed of nails/sharp as can be.' They're charming, they tease, they're so now that you wished you could be their best friend.

'The Nutcracker', ROH, 071-240 1066, Mon, Thurs, Fri, and continuing in repertory until 14 Jan.