DANCE: Royal Ballet: Ravel Royal Opera House, London

Click to follow
Ballet orchestras get very excited about playing an entire evening of Ravel. Not because Ravel is necessarily their favourite composer, but because playing just one composer all night makes them feel like musicians again. Accompanying the dancers with cut and paste Tchaikovsky symphonies doesn't have this effect. They were looking forward to last Friday's Ravel programme and it showed.

The evening began with Frederick Ashton's 1958 La Valse, conceived by Ravel as "a choreographic poem, a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz... the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel". It's like a ballroom glimpsed in a dream. Ashton's realisation of Ravel's vision may not have the sinister denouement of Balanchine's 1951 version but the frenzy of the final bars suggest that the ball ends with something slightly less innocuous than carriages at dawn.

The second piece was a short new work to Pavane pour une infante defunte by Christopher Wheeldon, a Royal Ballet School graduate now with the New York City Ballet. Wheeldon's second Royal Ballet work is for Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope. Bussell's gifts are ably if predictably exploited in clean sequences of extensions and jetes. Her beauty was less well served by Bob Crowley's inept costume design. Baggy grey crepe de chine pyjama bottoms are surely not the trousering of choice for a dancer with such gorgeous legs, and the fit of her skimpy satin basque will have had Vivienne Westwood turning in her groove. She didn't actually fall out of it but, believe me, that neckline is an accident waiting to happen.

Sartorially, we were heading downhill fast by the time we hit the revival of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 1979 La Fin du Jour. The piece was conceived as an animated Thirties fashion plate and features young things in hideous candy-coloured gilets and maillots designed by Ian Spurling, but Jean Patou it ain't. Leanne Benjamin and Belinda Hatley were subjected to some very hesitant handling by the male chorus but was their uncertainty first night nerves or just sheer embarrassment at having to wear this stuff in public?

Good taste reasserts itself in Daphnis and Chloe, revived with new designs by Martyn Bainbridge in 1994. Ashton's original conception had eschewed Greek peplums, tunics, chlamyses and chitons (or shit-ons as Ashton was pleased to call them), sandalled cheesecloth being rather old hat in 1951. However, Bainbridge's designs and Mark Henderson's sun-scorched lighting stylishly suggest the glory that was Greece without ever looking Duncanesque or arty. Stuart Cassidy and Sarah Wildor dance the lovers, with Adam Cooper and Irek Mukhamedov as the villains. Cooper's dancing goes from strength to strength and he now has the confidence to match - a quality well-suited to the character of Dorkon where his macho allegro contrasts satisfyingly with Cassidy's gentle bounces. Wildor's abducted Chloe is a masterly mixture of dignity and despair. Divine intervention ensures a happy reunion with her Daphnis and the pair are enriched by experience, not eternally blighted by it.

Tonight, 31 Oct, 8, 19 Nov. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (Booking: 0171- 304 4000)

Louise Levene