DANCE / Smile's better: Louise Levene enjoys a Don Quixote that reveals Sylvie Guillem's flair for comedy

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The Independent Culture
What kind of masochist spends all day watching a ballet production they don't even like? Seven weeks after the premiere of the Royal Ballet's Don Quixote, the work remains an unfocused mishmash of virtuoso dancing with no plot to speak of and no characterisation to write home about. Yet Saturday's final two partnerships (Miyako Yoshida and Tetsuya Kumakawa, Sylvie Guillem and Oliver Matz) made you forget all that.

The 20-year-old Kumakawa is not yet a fully-rounded dance actor, but he makes up for it with his remarkable speed and technique. Siegfried he may never be, but Basilio the barber suits him just fine. Birmingham Royal Ballet's Miyako Yoshida is a foxy comedienne with a sure technique and reckless attack in allegro. Don Quixote (and especially this production) is always in danger of degenerating into a mechanical sequence of non-stop effects, but Yoshida's warmth and vitality never allowed this to happen and served to humanise the occasionally sterile virtuosity of her partner. Their performances were rewarded by the rare sight of an audience still demanding curtain calls after the house lights had gone up.

The evening's cast also triumphed - against considerable odds. Two weeks ago, an international distress signal was sent out: 'Dancer required. Must be very tall. Some French an advantage. Reply soonest, A Dowell Esq, Covgard.' The SOS was made necessary by an injury to Jonathan Cope, who fell during rehearsal a few weeks ago and could barely get up again. Who would dance with Sylvie? Fearsomely accomplished, notoriously exacting and very tall indeed, Mlle Guillem wasn't going to be easy to partner. Finally the international dragnet pulled in Oliver Matz of the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin.

Last-minute injuries often necessitate ballerinas having to throw themselves fearlessly into the arms of men to whom they have barely been introduced, but the outcome could not have been happier. Tall, dark and almost handsome, Matz proved the image of a romanticised Spanish barber and attacked the role of Basilio with wit and intelligence. Not only that - he could dance. A wary audience rejoiced in his bouncing elevation, leisurely beaten jumps and clean pirouettes. Given the nightmarishly short rehearsal time, his partnering was a miracle of unstudied care. Secure in the knowledge of a worthy partner, she had a whale of a time, extracting every ounce of humour and fleshing out the character with vigour and conviction that made perfect sense of Kitri's mercurial mood changes from fury to flirtatiousness. This dramatic coherence was achieved by fluent and expressive mime that conjured whole dialogues from a few pouts and shrugs. As one might expect, her infamous technique was put to good use in the flashy choreography. In the split jetes her long (bare) white legs glided through space with the ease of a paper plane. Radiant with her dramatic and technical success, Guillem the comedienne was for once not merely able, but adorable.

Sylvie Guillem and Oliver Matz dance again tonight and 1 June. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (071-240 1066)