Dance Royal Ballet (mixed programme) Royal Opera House, London

'Cope partners Bussell as though dancing were the most ecstatic experience in the world'
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Around this time last year, the Royal Ballet was forced to cancel one its most eagerly anticipated productions - the new (and first) work it had dared to commission from Michael Clark. Earlier that year, Clark, working with his own dancers, had turned to the music of Stravinsky's Apollo and created a mesmerising take on Alan Balanchine's early essay in neo-classicism. The combination of serious music and authoritative choreography led the Royal to imagine, somewhat naively, that Clark - once its most gifted teenage defector - had grown up and come good at last. But the pre-Christmas curse of Apollo was to re-visit Covent Garden.

Last week, the company announced the abrupt departure of Zoltan Solymosi, one if its principal male dancers. The Hungarian had been preparing for his debut in... Balanchine's Apollo. It seems that Solymosi was, like Clark, the wild boy Apollo who could only be tamed so far. But in placing Jonathan Cope in the role vacated by Solymosi, the company offered adequate compensation for the latter's disappointed fan club. As reliable as Solymosi was inconsistent, Cope has matured into a dancer of meticulous, contained equilibrium which, in Apollo, enabled him to describe with fulsome clarity every shape and line of the choreography. He appears to embrace the sun above him as though it were the whole world; and he partners Darcey Bussell's Terpsichore as though dancing were the most mysterious and ecstatic experience in that world.

Together with Bussell, Deborah Bull's Calliope and Belinda Hatley's Polyhymnia formed a fine trio of muses. But to watch Bussell walking on pointe - each step a huge 180-degree upward swing of the leg followed by a eurythmically coalescent thrust of the pelvis - made you realise how extraordinary both she and this 67-year-old ballet are, just in terms of their modern classicism. Although Bussell is the Royal's most naturally Balanchinean dancer, Viviana Durante can claim the evening's second Stravinsky/Ballanchine ballet - Duo Concertant - as her own. Partnered by Bruce Sanson, Durante has steadily discovered all the work's playfulness, stillness and romantic nobility, and she shifts between these qualities with effortless fluidity.

Such indissoluble harmony between parties was never the intention in McMillan's 1972 Side Show, also set to Stravinsky - five movements culled from the two orchestral suites which grew out of the composure's Easy Pieces for piano. Originally created for Rudolph Nureyev and Lynn Seymour, Side Show is a 10-minute knockabout comedy for a moustachioed strongman (Irek Mukhamedov in Saturday afternoon wrestler mode) and a dippy ballerina (Miyako Yoshida) hell bent on upstaging one another. Most of the familiar ballet burlesque jokes get an airing: Mukhamedov ducking under Yoshida's extended leg as it swipes past; duets full of clumsy man-handling which leave the couple locked in ungainly positions; and, funniest of all, the partners' musical incompatibility. In terms of programming, Side Show's proximity to Duo Concertant marks a brilliant sleight of hand, showing us the pas de deux first as an act of freakish conflict and, subsequently, as one of dedicated and transfiguring co-operation.

n 30 November, 7 and 14 December. Booking: 0171-304 4000