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Dance: Out of space and time

IT WAS not a glorious moment in its nomadic status when the Royal Ballet found it had nowhere to go but the Festival Hall, vacated by the English National Ballet because the stage is the size of a shelf and lacks a fly tower. Nor, consequently, was it an inspired idea to stage MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet there - a Cecil B De Mille of a production, with human hordes, massive sets and countless scene changes.

For the occasion, Nicholas Georgiadis revised and scaled down his original designs, substituting an immobile architectural background of steps and terraced colonnades, which served as market-place, ballroom, balcony and bedroom. But that still left little room for the cast, who threatened to teem off the edge into the orchestra pit and halt Andrea Quinn's conducting. This last was a pleasure of the evening - vigorous in its contrasts, from hushed stillness to pounding solemnity or shimmering expansion.

Romeo and Juliet has always brought out the company's strength as an ensemble, relating convincingly to each other in the verismo of the crowd sequences. And so, during the ball, there are the vivid simultaneous pockets of drama among the guests, with Lord and Lady Capulet shuttling desperately around trying to control Juliet, to separate Tybalt and Romeo, to placate Paris. Yet how sad, this time, to watch such a stiff account of the later, pivotal fighting scene, with Jonathan Cope's Romeo standing woodenly, apparently uninterested in the fact that Mercutio is mortally wounded, and Christopher Saunders's Tybalt possibly the most stolid I have ever seen.

This was not an evening of vivid individual performances, despite the glittering core of Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope. Left alone, Cope reverts to his frustrating emotional inarticulacy; but, faced with Guillem, he lets loose to become a dream Romeo - handsome with his long neck and black curls, ecstatically abandoned in his attitude renverse turns, a strong and involved partner in the various pas de deux.

The technical perfection of Guillem's dancing aside, Juliet is not one of her most affecting roles. Although she is clearly sincere in Juliet's tragedy, you become aware of her physically active, conscious French style of acting, among the Royal Ballet's less stylised approach. She is best at happiness, so that in the balcony scene she really makes you live the heart-leaping excitement of falling in love.

Shi-Ning Liu as Benvolio creates smooth and clear shapes, but needs to turn down the volume of his gesturing, given that less is more, except in a stadium. William Trevitt, not one of ballet's effortless or witty performers, is an impossibly handsome but unexciting Mercutio. Gary Avis causes scarcely a ripple in the admittedly boring role of Paris. Roll on some of the backstage dramas. How about a ballet version of Mary Allen's Royal Opera House Diary?

Nadine Meisner