Dance: The Forsythe saga

Royal Ballet Covent Garden, London
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The Independent Culture
A word of advice for anyone intending to see the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill: go to your seat early and keep an eye on what the press officer refers to as the "pre-performance activities" attached to William Forsythe's new work, Firstext. I won't spoil the fun by describing them, but Forsythe and his collaborators - Dana Caspersen and Antony Rizzi - must be applauded for giving the take-your-time brigade a lesson in punctuality.

To witness groups of latecomers stumbling up and down aisles plunged into darkness was amusing enough. But far more humorous was the decision to bring up the house lights again once the disorientated were seated. In fact, throughout Firstext the audience is more visible than the dancers, as much of the work takes place under Forsythe's typically dim lighting.

On a strip-backed stage,Sylvie Guillem skulks around, all feline prowess and cool nonchalance as she demonstrates her familiar vocabulary of sinuous contortions. A male trio - Peter Abegglen and Matthews Dibble and Hart - enters, and two soloists, Benazir Hussein and Adam Cooper, complete the motley crew. But, for the most part, Forsythe presents six individuals whose moves are fractured, detached and generally self-serving. With the choreographer wilfully breaking up any strand of order or continuity that begins to form, Firstext translates as deconstruction informed not by rigorous analysis but by a tendency to lazy amorphousness.

While in Firstext the dancers frequently approach the actors' partnering as if it were a chore rather than a potential pleasure, Steptext offers a more intriguing scenario featuring Deborah Bull as the recalcitrant but vulnerable female whose attachment to Zoltan Solymosi does not stop her testing the waters with both Tetsuya Kumakawa and Peter Abegglen. Danced to an on-off amplification of music by Bach for solo violin, Steptext is tinged with a more satisfying aimlessness and insufficiency, its choreographic arrangements more accomplished than the inchoate meanderings of Firstext. All of its four dancers - unlike the cardboard cut-out period cast of Glen Tetley's La Ronde - emerge as singular characters in whom we want to take an interest.

The less said about La Ronde, the better. Based on Reigen, Arthur Schnitzler's notorious play of sexual dalliance in fin de sicle Vienna (written 1896/7, but not performed in public until 1920), Tetley's ballet turns the work's series of affairs into an interminable round of perfunctory groping. Darcey Bussell's talent is shamefully wasted in the Prostitute role, but Ashley Page, as the repulsive Count, is marvellously lured when inviting the Actress to sit on his lap (and much more).

Things improve with the arrival of Ashton's Rhapsody (1980), now boasting new designs. Kumakawa brings formidable technical skill to the role, and he triumphs in feats of staggering virtuosity which include countless multiple pirouettes and some corkscrew jumps in which his body is propelled almost horizontally across the stage. But his ostensible smugness makes that final, upturned-palms, shrug gesture seem facetious rather than charming.

n At the ROH 8, 10, and 12 May (0171-304 4000)

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