Dance: Skating far too close to the edge

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The Independent Culture
We always knew that the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) were performing marvels at their old home. With no flying tower, and a stage like a shelf, the Royal Festival Hall (which was built purely for orchestral concerts) is a dance director's nightmare - as the Royal Ballet is now discovering.

Matthew Hart's charming Peter and the Wolf was excellently danced by the Royal Ballet School and didn't suffer particularly from the transfer, but the lack of space can become painfully apparent whenever existing work is shoehorned on to it. The graceful circuits of the ice made by Ashton's chasse-ing dancers in his 1937 masterpiece Les Patineurs may have been crafted on the cramped 30ft stage of the old Sadler's Wells, but in this new, foreshortened site the circles are squashed into ellipses.

Ashton's seamless exits and entrances were let down last Tuesday by some perilously close brushes with the trellis-work. However, the dancers responded manfully to the challenge of fitting the steps into the space available. Miyako Yoshida and Deborah Bull were slyly witty as the two show-offs in blue, Yoshida nipped through her fouettes with much of the speed and twice the charm of any figure-skater you could name.

Equally slippery was Tetsuya Kumakawa's Blue Boy. The audience was delighted with his silky pirouettes and bold cabrioles. Unfortunately, so was he - but perhaps a little cockiness is not inappropriate when portraying the supercharged vanity of the solo skating virtuoso.

Such individuality is largely dispensed with in the second number in the double-bill: Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter. The work was successfully translated from the 1971 feature film to a live-action fluff-fest in 1992 and has been tormenting dancers and selling tickets ever since. On Tuesday, a last-minute cast change was announced, telling us that one of Squirrel Nutkin's fat, furry chums had been replaced. Trust me: your own mother wouldn't know you through that amount of fur fabric and after 15 minutes' dancing in that heat, you'd have forgotten your own name anyway. I'd selected a lightweight black crepe number for the evening and I found the Festival Hall sweltering - happily I wasn't wearing my padded, all-in-one squirrel suit.

The over-long 65-minute production has had to be altered considerably to fit its temporary home. The Two Bad Mice now take possession of a bungalow rather than a magnificent, two-storey Victorian villa, and all of the backcloths have to be tracked on from the wings like so many Swish curtains, with the result that Oliver Symons's spirited Mrs Tiggywinkle runs on against a rather creased approximation of the Lake District. The point where two curtains join is occasionally held in place by a rather obvious fist.

The dancers began their stint of 14 Potters with commendable energy. Peter Abegglen, Hubert Essakow and Joshua Tuifua put in some chasteningly nimble pointework as Pigling Bland and friends, and all have tendonitis to look forward to in the New Year. William Trevitt was in a fever of fuss and virtuosity as Jeremy Fisher, and Natalie McCann waddled her way sweetly through Jemima Puddleduck. They may not actually spend a week on a farm in preparation for each role, but they do apparently aim to do all the appropriate facial expressions beneath Rostislav Doboujinsky's masks. All the more heartbreaking when you reflect that at least half the audience is probably applauding the suit.

`Tales of Beatrix Potter' is in a double bill with either `Les Patineurs' or `Peter and the Wolf' at the Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London SE1, until Saturday. Tickets: 0171-304 4000