Dance: Symmetries funereal, not fearful

International Celebration of Choreography Royal Opera House, London

The thinking behind the Royal Ballet's first full-evening programme in its new house was straightforward enough. A new beginning asks for new ballets. The company can't possibly afford to buy them in any quantity so why not rent some for a few nights? And while we're about it, why not bring on some dancers and choreographers that British dance-lovers don't normally get to see? Open up the field a bit. Show us little Englanders what we've been missing.

How such fine ideals could have led to Wednesday's leaden and joyless International Celebration is beyond me. The only thing this seven-part programme managed to prove is that foreign ballet companies have as much trouble finding challenging new choreography as we do. But are they really so conservative in Toronto that Glen Tetley's Tagore - whose gloopy pas de deux might serve better as a TV ad for shampoo or chocolates - counts as cutting-edge? Are they so easy to please in New York that Peter Martin's tame Barber Violin Concerto counts as sizzling stuff? Or did the Royal Ballet just pick a bunch of duds?

Whatever the qualities of individual works, it was surely a mistake to crowd four pas de deux into one evening. By the end, they had blurred into one. Only Lento, a duet made specially for this programme by Hamburg's John Neumeier, stood out in bright relief. Darcey Bussell in a red catsuit would be striking in any context, but here, partnered by Hamburg principal Otto Bubenicek, her astounding capacity for folding and unfolding that body and those limbs like origami was beautifully exploited.

Larger commissions from British choreographers topped and tailed the evening, but failed to take fire. First came A Stranger's Taste. The title says it all: Siobhan Davies is a foreigner to classical ballet (she once danced the part of a cabbage in a school concert, we're told) and here makes much of the language barrier between her own gravity-bound, intimate, detailed, modern-dance style and ballet's airier gestures. Sadly, she seems to have discovered that the two don't have much to say to each other. David Buckland's set, with its rows of silver propellers, was, I think, meant to remind spectators of the Stranger's territory, where slow-revolving blades have often insinuated their motion upon dancers below to suggest tropical heat, factory turbines, or air travel. In this piece, though, they were just funny-shaped helium balloons, distracting attention from the dancing as one wondered which propeller was going to start revolving next.

Davies had scribbled her name all over the Royal Ballet's dancers, and to their credit they coped well: the arms like JCB diggers, shaping the air like slabs of clay, switching suddenly to tiny, fiddly movement suggesting the fine-tuning of cello-strings. More expansive solo passages touched on some of ballet's fizzier possibilities - here a big leap, there a fancy triple-twizzle - but these only served to remind you of what Siobhan Davies isn't. Perhaps that was the point. But the whole work felt wrong and odd and small-scale when it should have been big. Only the music - juxtaposing 18th-century viol music with John Cage's works for a piano with bits of ironmongery lodged inside it - made for a truly strange and wondrous meeting.

Ashley Page's new work, Hidden Variables, was likewise not half as good as its score - a grand, sombre affair for full orchestra by Colin Matthews. It sounded fine, scaling mountain-range climaxes and coasting plains of minimalism. Briefly, it made a nod to John Adams - whose scores have powered Page's best ballets. But this one has neither the clarity nor the clout of his big hit Fearful Symmetries. Again, Page sets his men and women in moody opposition: arm wrestling, scowling, striking aggressive postures. Sexy black pointes and micro minis gave Laura Morera and Mara Galeazzi the air of man-eating spiders; Carlos Acosta carved up the airspace impressively. But no one felt like cheering its close. The sum total of applause during this ill-conceived evening registered as the weakest I've heard in this house. Celebration of International Choreography? It was more like a wake.

`International Choreography' (different combinations of work): 16 Dec, 20, 21 & 29 Jan, Royal Opera House (0171 304 4000)

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