Dance Royal Ballet ROH, London

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The Independent Culture
The Royal Ballet's Ashton repertoire is like a fine string of pearls: if no one takes them out and wears them in the full glow of limelight they lose their lustre and start to look like old false teeth. Although the company has been accused of neglecting its heritage, it has been striving to make amends with painstaking revivals and new productions. The latest Ashton bill at Covent Garden opened on Monday night with Symphonic Variations, The Dream and an overdue revival of Illuminations, which began the programme.

The work was created in 1950 when Lincoln Kirstein asked Ashton to create something for the New York City Ballet. The choreographer was a huge fan of Rimbaud and, with the help of Benjamin Britten's 1940 song-cycle Les Illuminations and Cecil Beaton's deliberately child-like designs, he created a cryptic work which explored the work of the teenage poet and alluded - with necessary restraint - to events in his unhappy life. The curtain rises on a twilit tableau of pierrots. At their centre is the poet (Jonathan Cope), who begins his dream-like progression through Rimbaud's mystical landscape. The Sacred and Profane Loves that shape his destiny are danced by Darcey Bussell and Benazir Hussein. Bussell's Sacred Love is the more successful interpretation: her great gifts of length and strength give her dancing an unhurried air that easily suggests the languor of the underwater drawing-room that Ashton and Beaton had conceived. Jonathan Cope's poet enjoys a brief and sordid liaison with his Profane Love but at the end, bleeding and broken, he staggers offstage in pursuit of the Sacred one.

The evening's second, palate-cleansing piece is Symphonic Variations, made by Ashton in 1946 after leaving the Air Force. The work is a cool-headed affirmation of youth, beauty and classical technique. Although Monday's cast looked strong enough on paper, not everyone was on top form and this took the shine off some of the choreography. The cast of six was led by the brittle but brilliant Viviana Durante partnered by Bruce Sansom. Clean of line, neat of foot and boyishly handsome, he is ideally suited to the task. He is equally good as Oberon in Ashton's The Dream but on Monday that role was taken by Tetsuya Kumakawa. Kumakawa used to dance Puck and it once seemed as if this diminutive dynamo was doomed to bounce his way through the pixie repertoire. However, efforts have been made to upgrade him to danseur noble and in 1993 he graduated to the role of Oberon. Kumakawa devours space with the careless ease of an animated figure but on a bad day his acting has that same Disneyfied quality. Although he has clearly been coached very carefully, he still lacks the authority required to control Leanne Benjamin's wilful Titania - let alone 16 fairies.

n In repertory at the Royal Opera House 18, 24 April, 1, 4 May (0171-304 4000)

LOUISE LEVENE

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