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DANCE / Odile is more than just another ugly duckling

Cinderella / Swan Lake - Royal Opera House, London
Tragedy runs deep in Swan Lake, but the passing of a century has allowed small, amusingly modern aspects of tragedy to emerge. Take the unofficial party laid on for Prince Siegfried's coming-of-age: first his mother turns up and, as if that wasn't embarrassing enough, she then makes Siegfried agree to choose a bride the following evening. How fortunate that the Royal Ballet is, at present, blessed with plenty of dancers to whom historical character acting comes as naturally as a split arabesque.

As the company's opening-night Siegfried, Zoltn Solymosi slipped effortlessly into his role as troubled prince of a bygone era, while Sandra Conley, as his mother, swished into right royal focus as if born to it.

But on the tragedy front, Siegfried's initial plight is trivial compared to what Swan Lake's Odette - Darcey Bussell's first major role in a season which she has mostly spent recuperating after her ankle operation - must endure. Transformed from princessto swan maiden by the evil Von Rothbart, and assuming human form only between midnight and dawn, Odette is condemned to spend the rest of her life as a swan unless Von Rothbart's spell is broken by a promise of eternal love.

Anti-ballet feminists reserve a special loathing for Swan Lake: Odette's fate depends, ultimately, on the actions of two men who, naturally, seek to own her. But Odette's reliance on one man (Siegfried) to break the spell of another (Von Rothbart) seems no more tragic than the brevity of Siegfried's first - and doomed - experience of love.

And while ballet has always been a target for crude feminist analysis - the virgin-whore analogy can so readily be slapped on to Odette-Odile - but the white swan maiden is far more than a metaphor for passive sexuality, just as the black swan (Odile) isn't merely a vampish seductress controlled by Von Rothbart. As Balanchine said, put 16 girls on stage and it's everybody - it's the world; but put 16 men there and it's nobody. In Swan Lake we see women whose mental power is a disarming weapon. Thus the ballet's larger tragedy afflicts Siegfried and is most poignantly effective during the ballroom scene, when the Prince is duped into making a vow of marriage to Odile; and beside the enchanted lake of Inanov's Act IV, where he must come to terms with thefact that he has destroyed Odette's chance of freedom for ever, and so elects to be united in death with her.

This revival of Anthony Dowell's 1987 production, an elegant staging in which long-lost choreographic aspects of the 1895 Ivanov-Petipa St Petersberg version have been restored, is absolutely driven by the essential tragedy of the ballet's scenario. And Bussell and Solymosi home in on all the exquisite melancholy ofTchaikovsky's score. If Busselllooked initially and uncharacteristically wary, she proved back on sparkling form as Odile, demonstrating the speed, attack and assurance required. Bewitched byher charms, Solymosi fell on his knees and, in a convincing display of infatuation, buried his head in her tutu. But while the flamboyance of his gestures has an old-school, Soviet flavour, he makes the mistake of enlarging his gestures in the solo variations where he should be throwing himself into phrases of large, space-consuming movement.

Solymosi's tendency to contain his dance energy for the ballet's punishing solos is logical - but he doesn't stop saving himself when it is time to let rip. In contrast, William Trevitt, who recently made his debut as the Prince in Ashton's Cinderella, immerses himself in his role, handsomely partnering Nicola Roberts' unworldly Cinderella. Trevitt tackles the stylistic challenges of Ashton's choreography without holding back and without losing track of place and event, making the most heroic of leaps seem no more (or less) important than a princely look or gesture. As Cinderella's step-sisters, Ashley Page and Iain Webb threaten to hijack the ballet with their petty squabbles, but neither resorts to cheap attention-seeking ta ctics. If Page's interpretation is the more finely judged, Webb, trussed up in a pram-hood bonnet turns out to be an equally likeable hag on the make.

n `Swan Lake', 16, 19 Jan; `Cinderella', 14 Jan. Box-office 071- 304 4000.

Sophie Constanti