Dance: The battle of the ballets

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The Independent Culture
WHAT FOLLY that after months with hardly any ballet in London, two major seasons are now running side by side. The Royal Ballet opened at Sadler's Wells the same night as the Bolshoi at the Coliseum, continue for the same period, and have chosen the same nights to open some of their programme changes.

There is no clear winner in this battle. Both companies are well accompanied musically: the Bolshoi by its own orchestra from Moscow, the Royal with the Covent Garden Orchestra undistracted by opera. Neither has shown an ideal repertoire, but the Bolshoi has won on points for the quality of its leading men - big and bold, but subtle too - and also for its much- improved corps de ballet.

Still, there have been some exceptionally fine individual performances in the Royal Ballet's season. The one that gave me most pleasure was the combination of Viviana Durante and Carlos Acosta leading Frederick Ashton's ecstatically inventive Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations. Durante is arguably the Royal's best ballerina of the past two decades and Acosta its best male recruit. Both danced with brilliance and joy, making the markedly difficult solos look almost easy. Above all, they found a smiling rapport that lit up the work. Actosta's first London Albrecht in Giselle was also a notable occasion: involved and expressive acting as well as unusually fine dancing.

Also a special pleasure was the sight of Darcey Bussell in Balanchine's Serenade, a rhapsodic and moving treatment of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Despite an injured ankle, Bussell gave a beautiful account of the ballet, heading an otherwise only moderate cast on its opening night. Too bad she has had to withdraw from all subsequent performances. The injury and illness in this company is really alarming.

Disturbing, too, is the artistic judgement that can take pride in presenting the season's one premiere, William Luckett's dreary Turn of the Screw, a mishmash of silly walks, eccentric gestures, an occasional meaningless step, nice grown-up dancers lumbered with children's roles, and chairs, umbrellas and pieces of paper carried on and off. The first-night audience was left puzzling "Was that really the end?" - not surprising with a show that never really got started.

At least we have had three heritage works back in the programmes, Ashton's Ondine as well as Rhapsody and Serenade. And some of the younger dancers have had a chance to shine, notably Ricardo Cervera as Tirrenio in Ondine and Shi-Ning Liu in Rhapsody. What I found disappointing, on the whole, has been the ensemble dancing, for which the fault must lie less with the dancers than with the way they are prepared.

One problem is that the company has sometimes looked ill at ease in its temporary home. For audiences it is good to see the dancers closer than usual, and the enlarged stage gives plenty of scope. But why are some of the decors placed to steal so much of the space? We shall have to wait and see whether the return to Covent Garden in December pulls everything together. Then we shall hope to see the first steps, however tentative, towards the excellence we keep hearing about but haven't seen often enough lately.

John Percival

To 31 July (0171-863 8000)