DANCE / River of blood: Judith Mackrell on Birmingham Royal Ballet

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The Independent Culture
Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend - choreographed in 1948 - is great folk art. It distills, harrowingly, the real- life emotions of the murderess Lizzie Borden, yet it also tells her story with the vivid strokes of a cartoon, giving it the grim humour and inevitability of the nursery rhyme: 'Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother 40 whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father 41.'

De Mille's particular gift is for honing in on specific devices that convey whole chunks of plot. At the beginning, we see the child Lizzie, innocently happy with her parents, while Borden the woman shadows her through the dance. As Borden yearns towards her protected younger self, we register all the years of rejection that she suffered after her mother died and her despised stepmother moved in.

The stepmother's blighting presence is chillingly conveyed in the scene where she and Borden's father rock their chairs in creaking unison while Borden sits alone with her grief. The men and women of the town pass by with tripping steps and gossipy hands as Borden's body becomes more distorted with rage and loneliness, her hands almost arthritic with resentment.

So overwrought does Lizzie's tension become that it's clear her only release is through taking an axe to her ghastly parents - though de Mille cunningly deflects the gruesome climax into a dream sequence where Borden is visited by her real dead mother. After wringing her hands at the sight of Lizzie's blood- splattered frock, she relents into a gentle scolding as Lizzie mimes that she'll wash it herself - Borden poignantly fantasising herself back into the secure logic of childish reward and punishment.

The only flaw in this riveting drama is its sometimes leisurely structure. There are passages of slack in the dancing which you keep expecting to be filled with dialogue or song. The piece needs a more closely knit rhythm to make it entirely successful. But Birmingham Royal Ballet, in their first performance of the work, are wholly convincing, while for Marion Tait as Borden it is a personal triumph. As she twists against her fate and battens on her own rage, she manages both to catch at your heart and repel you with the grim, gauche darkness of her pain.

In the same programme are Balanchine's Serenade and MacMillan's Elite Syncopations which also show the company dancing with their usual instinct for drama. The dreamy encounters in Serenade and the cookery comedy in Syncopations are both intelligently imagined, though there's an underlying placidity that fails to extract the full wit and drama from the steps. Even Monia Zamora in Syncopations needs more sharpness and variety in her phrasing - though she does pull off a wonderfully comic spaced-out sexiness in the role, her mind floating ditzily a few feet above her remarkable body.