Dance: The beautiful game

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The Independent Culture

WE MAY be familiar with cross-country skiing and a rather good dramatist called Ibsen, but Norwegian dance? As redress, London is hosting several dance companies in the context of the Visions of Norway festival across Britain.

To Sadler's Wells comes the Oslo-based Norwegian National Ballet, never seen here before, except 50 years ago in another incarnation as the New Norwegian Ballet. We would have been keen to sample the company's dancers - multinational, but with a sizeable proportion of Norwegians - in less familiar, more Scandinavian ballets, but director Dinna Bjorn resolved on Romeo and Juliet. This is a coals-to-Newcastle offering, since we have more Romeo and Juliets than we can cope with. And experience has taught that they all tend to look the same, their shape tightly bound by Prokofiev's prescriptive score.

True, a few single-minded choreographers have managed to override the music's constraints - as did Massimo Moricone and Christopher Gable for Northern Ballet Theatre. But Royal Ballet alumnus Michael Corder, invited by the Norwegians to create a Romeo and Juliet in 1992, is not one of them. Perhaps the Norwegians specifically wanted a full-scale production with all the trimmings; certainly it's what their home audiences want, and has become a pillar of the repertory. But in London it plods on as a massive three-hour dose of deja vu.

There is a dream sequence, as in Nureyev's version (English National Ballet), and any number of sequences resembling those in MacMillan's (Royal Ballet). The Royal Ballet Sinfonia guests under Terje Boye-Hansens, delivering Prokofiev in blandly flattened tracts.

Beatrix Balazs flutters and swirls prettily, as Juliets always do; tall Richard Suttie moves with smooth strength as Romeo, but seems to have left his personality in the dressing room. Thomas Halvorsen and Marek Jez are attractive as, respectively, Benvolio and Mercutio, but their undifferentiated characters made it impossible to distinguish them before the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio.

The whole company exudes sincerity and enthusiasm, despite Nadine Baylis's unbelievably fussy designs. Clearly Carrara's quarries have been seriously depleted by the quantity of marble carved into a frenzy of redundant stairs, arches, terraces, balconies and turrets. The cast sports a hectic variety of costumes, like the collection of a medieval John Galliano. Against these distractions, Corder's choreography - not his most inspired, anyway - wages a losing battle.

Staged at a fraction of the cost, Jo Stromgren Kompani's A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football at the ICA has all the novelty Romeo and Juliet lacks. It may not be the first choreography about the game, but it cleverly transforms dance into sweaty brawn as four footballers fuse choreographic jumps and leg extensions with dribbling, kicking and headers. Jo Stromgren has a wittily observant eye for the tribal postures around football: the pelvic thrusts of defiance and war-chanting rituals, no different in Norway from those in Britain.

Fascinating also are the surreal sequences in which the footballers seem suspended in their own internal spaces, or freeze in action photographs, or enact slow-motion replays that expose the absurdity of movement driven by hysteria. This was the first time I have watched football all the way through, and I have caught the spark. Wembley here I come.

Norwegian National Ballet finishes at Sadler's Wells (0171-863 8000) tonight; Un Magritt Nordseth Danseproducsjon is at the ICA on 22 November (0171 930-3647)