DANCE / The heart skips a beat: Judith Mackrell on Ballet Atlantique's Richard Alston double-bill and the Kirov's Le Corsaire

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NOW THAT Richard Alston is no longer artistic director of Rambert, it won't just be his choreography that's missed from the company. Gone too will be the brave and very personal selection of 20th-century music that he brought to the repertoire. Certainly one of the highlights of the Alston double bill performed by Ballet Atlantique at QEH was the Pierre Boulez score to which he's created one of his most luminous works.

Le Marteau sans Maitre is scored for an exotic group of instruments - including flute, xylorimba, viola, guitar and voice - and out of them Boulez weaves a fabric of astonishingly bright, pure sound. The instruments combine, scatter and recombine in shifting patterns of colour and texture while a deft erratic rhythm keeps the music dancing. At the same time, strange dark spaces unfold beneath the score's brilliant surface - and Alston's choreography races in to fill them.

Like the music, the dance offers itself first as a rich play of image and line as the dancers leap, angle and curve on the impetus of Boulez's rhythm. But it's in the central duets for Regine Chopinot (director of Ballet Atlantique) and Joseph Lennon that Alston captures the more charged dramatic resonances of the music.

Chopinot is a serious, passionate dancer and, in combination with Lennon's tough cowboy muscularity, she inspires some of the most voluptuous and mysterious movement Alston has ever made. As the couple circle around each other aud embrace there's a play of looks and gestures and a magnetism between bodies which establish, within the more abstract sensuousness of the work, an urgent dramatic heartbeat.

After the distilled intensity of Le Marteau, the Kirov's production of Le Corsaire feels like a rackety party. With music pasted together from a hotchpotch of scores and with contributions from several choreographers, the ballet is one of the most piecemeal works in the repertoire. But its shamelessly idiotic story of pirates and slave girls and its occasionally glittering choreographic gems mean that it can, with the right injection of mischief, add up to a total romp.

On Monday night Konstantin Zaklinsky, as the slave dealer Lankedes, was the ballet's most beguiling star. From prince to barrow boy, he convincingly shed all the heroic dignity of his normal roles to create a glittering image of cynicism, venality and lust. As he swanned around the stage haggling over harem girls and stealing pirate treasure, he kept the production perpetually on the edge of giggles.

Dancing the two lovers, Conrad and Medora, were Alexander Kurkov, the least visible man in the company, and Yulia Makhalina, its most rampantly spectacular woman. However virilely Kurkov postured, he simply paled submissively beside the breathtaking technical tirades unleashed by Makhalina.

But wildly upstaging even her was the Kirov's very own Michael Jackson, Faroukh Ruzimatov - who was meant to be playing Conrad's sidekick Ali but was really dancing himself. With his curls carefully clustering around his collar bones and his delicate nostrils flaring, Ruzimatov seemed, like Jackson, to be locked in the unreality of his own self-image. Capacious as the ballet is, it's still too small to hold him.