Dance / Royal Ballet Dance Bites The Swan, High Wycombe and on tour

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The Independent Culture
Dance Bites, the Royal Ballet's small-scale touring project - which calls at four venues over the next couple of weeks - is the company's most dutiful annual attempt to inject fresh choreographic blood into its staid repertoire without alienating its audience. The compromise isn't as cynical as it might sound: regional audiences, deprived of Royal Ballet performances, get to see some of the company's best dancers yet, commendably, the Royal doesn't pander to popular expectations or demand for full-length classics. Of course, the arrangement is mutually beneficial in that it also allows the company a safe testing ground for new choreography.

While this year's programme, like the 1994 and 1995 editions, isn't exactly brimming with noteworthy new items, it seems less shackled overall by prudish conventions of what is - and isn't - suitable fodder for the ballet stage. Ashley Page's Sleeping With Audrey, set to Orlando Gough's apposite, stuck in a groove score - a blend of nervy but voracious strings and broken lines from an anonymous riddle-poem - lulls you into a Second Stride-ish hinterland populated by a group of mysterious, individual figures. The work is as sweetly and legitimately puzzling in its scenario and manner as the naif-style painting by Stephen Chambers from which it takes its title. Patterns of repetition emerge; relationships between particular couples filter through the larger action. The deliberate vagueness of narrative line appeals to Page's better choreographic nature, softening the tiresome truculence that informs all too many of his male/ female duets.

While Sleeping With Audrey illustrates the sensitive application of contemporary performance heterodoxy to ballet, Christopher Wheeldon's Souvenir shows a young choreographer taking almost grotesque refuge in ballet's most cloying niceties. To the assertive, tumescent motivity of Tchaikovsky's string sextet, Souvenir de Florence - played by an on-stage but partially obscured ensemble - Wheeldon produces reams of bland lyricism, his four couples dancing to no apparent purpose or effect in a white ballroom.

Emma Diamond, in her Signed In Red, also uses four couples and music for strings. But, to Wojciech Kilar's driving accompaniment, she arranges her dancers in more enterprising configurations than Wheeldon does. Allen Jones's yellow and red lycra costumes for the women are predictably body- hugging, but could hardly be described as fetishistic. Jones once said of his paintings of stocking- and stiletto-wearing females that he wanted the "image to be a sign for woman not a portrait of her". In much the same spirit, Diamond's dance flashes past, leaving you with the after- image of a private obsession momentarily exposed.

Eroticism is also at play in Odalisque - a duet for Gillian Revie and singer/ composer Fabienne Audeoud by Tom Sapsford. As the curtain rises on this sumptuous recreation of Ingres's La Grande Odalisque, you immediately suspect a visit to the cod Orient of Frederick Ashton's Thais or Mikhail Fokine's Scheherazade. But here, Ingres's lounging model steps out of the artist's painting and comes to life, eventually returning to her original position on the dais and transfixes us with her mesmeric gaze. Although choreographically thin, the work is an elegant, painstaking realisation of its subject matter.

n At the Lyceum, Sheffield (0114-276 9922) tonight to 23 March; Grand Theatre, Blackpool (01253 28372) 25-26 March; and Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844) 28-30 March