DANCE / Magic box for Aurora's dawn

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The Independent Culture
YOU'VE GOT to hand it to Jonathan Cope. The man knows how to kiss. It took just one of his smackers to wake Darcey Bussell from her slumbers in the Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty last Saturday night - and what a recommendation she was for a century of lying in bed. There are not many ballerinas worthy of the role of Princess Aurora, but in her debut, she awoke to reveal she is one of them.

Marius Petipa's ballet is regarded as the summit of Russian imperial ballet, with choreography as broad as it is deep. It is also the first ballet to be an interpretation of the score; here, Tchaikovsky became the first composer to assert authority over the ballet- master. Did the Frenchman mind? You bet. He was fast heading for 80 and resented having to work so hard. But the collaboration proved a triumph for composer and choreographer when The Sleeping Beauty opened in St Petersburg in 1890.

The Royal Ballet's version is a revival of Petipa's masterpiece and has been one of the company's most popular classics. The parable that pits good against evil will attract audiences again, especially if they don't mind the billowing dry ice, perhaps on loan from Pink Floyd.

No amount of smoke could conceal first-night nerves, however, and it was a toss-up between the four princes and Bussell for the winner in the panic derby. In Act I, Princess Aurora has a delicate set of balances with her four suitors, and at one point, Bussell looked as though she was about to rebuke one of them for not helping to steady the wobbles. A pep talk during the interval seemed to calm everyone's nerves. By the final pas de deux, Bussell was well inside her 'magic box' - her own description of her leading performances - dancing with the radiance of youth, sure of the steps, pure in her delivery.

There were no rebukes for Jonathan Cope (Prince Florimund), who was dependable in a rather endearing way. He knew this was the big one, and he let no one down. So what if he is not the highest jumper in the world. His grace makes up for it.

The production is civil and polite - apart, of course, from the evil Carabosse (Monica Mason), who screams on in her carriage, two parts hysteria to one part malevolence, a Dot Cotton from EastEnders who's just run out of fags and has no way of getting more. But the forces of good face her down, with Tetsuya Kumakawa (the Blue Bird) and Nicola Roberts (Princess Florine) dancing Carabosse and just about everyone else off the stage with their virtuosity.

Politeness emerged as the theme for this week's dance programme. The Birmingham Royal Ballet opened its London season with six short pieces that had no discernible link other than the decorum with which they were executed. Graham Lustig's Paramour (1987) was an elegant complement to Poulenc's music, while Hans van Manen's Twilight (1972) was more lovely than it was meant to be. Both the steps and John Cage's music suggest the couple's sexual politicking, set bizarrely before an oil refinery, was designed with more aggro in mind. Pavane (1973) was included as a tribute to Kenneth MacMillan, and Marion Tait honoured his memory in style. Frederick Ashton's Facade (1931) was froth set to William Walton, the evening's rather pointless light touch.

The Green Table's anti-war message was as strong at Sadler's Wells as it was in Birmingham last year. The company surprises with its affinity for Kurt Jooss's heavy, sculptured style. Death (Joseph Cipolla), with his flapping, dead- fish feet, and the nimble Profiteer (Vincent Redmon) drive home the futility and dislocation of war.

The night, however, belonged to Miyako Yoshida and Tetsuya 'Elastic Legs' Kumakawa, who brought the house down with their electrifying pas de deux from Don Quixote. I assume the piece was shamelessly included for its pyrotechnics, and the two young Japanese dancers delighted everyone with their ebullience.

There was no need for CandoCo to be so polite. The company launched Spring Loaded, the contemporary dance festival, with Flying in the Face of . . . , a piece for dancers on foot and wheels. People in wheelchairs are often invisible because it can be difficult for them to get into places. CandoCo outed the disabled. It also smashed a few myths, including the one that says dancers should have legs.

CandoCo (the opposite of no can do) was founded in 1991 by Celeste Dandeker, who broke her neck in 1973 when performing with London Contemporary Dance. Together with Adam Benjamin, the able-bodied artistic director, they formed a company open to anyone to show not only what they can do but what can be. There are 12 dancers, three in wheelchairs.

David Toole, who has no legs, leaps out of his wheelchair, and scampers across stage to fondle his mate. Bang goes another myth: the physically handicapped are sexual, and in this case, homosexual. Benjamin says he is aiming for consciousness-raising. Here he raises a few eyebrows as well.

This is no therapy to make the disabled feel better. These are dancers, some in wheelchairs, some not, some with legs that move, some with legs that can't. They have plenty to say, most of it shocking, but that is no reason to spare the audience's feelings. CandoCo needs to assault prejudice, not be tentative, as it was on Monday night, but that may come in time.

The choreography was good and achieved its purpose: integrating the human and mechanical (not only wheelchairs but a big Wright Brothers-style winged affair on a bicycle). It was only more than halfway through that the theme really began to take shape - why be falsely separate when togetherness is more fun?

CandoCo should take its cue from the chronologically challenged Nederlands Dans Theater 3, formed in 1991 for dancers over 40. The quartet communicated with conviction so that No Sleep Till Dawn of Day, a sensuous piece by Jiri Kylian and the boisterous Journey by Mats Ek were sleek - with no sign of middle- age spread.

'The Sleeping Beauty', 071-240 1066, Sat; Birmingham Royal Ballet's season continues at Sadler's Wells, 071-278 8916, to 13 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)