DANCE / The qualities of Merce that have not waned

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The Independent Culture
THE GRAND old man of contemporary dance, Merce Cunningham, is as brilliant as ever. On Friday night he brought Events to London as part of the Dance Umbrella season to celebrate the life of his long-time partner, the late composer John Cage.

And what an event it was - a collage of his works, sometimes extracts from two different pieces on the same stage, determined on the day. The dancers, in fluorescent body-suits, showed off bodies that were an endless variety of intricate movements and shapes, bouncing, jumping, leaping like starfish with vigour.

As Cage pushed the musical boundaries to the limit, so did the dancers with their accomplished discipline: taut, confident but relaxed, endlessly versatile. The best of dance.

Another masterpiece, Kurt Jooss's The Green Table, was performed for the first time by The Birmingham Royal Ballet in a 60th anniversary production as part of a triple bill. It is a personal statement about the horrors of war and an outstanding example of how dance can deal with political issues. Jooss, a German expressionist, created the work the year before fleeing the Nazis.

Politicians in morning suits and masks (denoting false faces) hammer on either side of the green table, coughing and splurting their self-important views. In another of the eight short episodes, storm-troopers in black boots, bare-chested, goose- step their way across the stage, a fearless army scoffing at the very notion of self-doubt. Death as a skeleton slaps his feet on the floor, beating out time. The Profiteer in Cabaret bowler hat and white gloves weaves in and out, a nimble spiv in search of his next likely chance. A haunting piano marches alongside.

The drama unfolds through the characters' stories, lending an immediacy, which the company seizes and embellishes with total dedication. The dancers sink their souls into the piece to make it one of the boldest, most chilling pieces to enter the repertoire. A brave choice beautifully done.

In contrast, Frederick Ashton's gem, Symphonic Variations, is dance for dance's sake, an open statement of the English classical style he helped to shape. A sextet for three men and three women in classical Grecian tunics, Symphonic Variations has seldom been seen since it was created in 1946. One of the reasons is Ashton's mistrust of new casts. (The original cast included Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, Brian Shaw, and Michael Somes, who produced this version.)

Perhaps Ashton was right. Monday night's performance was the company's first, and the cast seemed rather in awe of its virtuosity. Symphonic Variations lives at the heart of Cesar Franck's music, the visual phrases courting the musical ones. Kevin O'Hare captured this in an elegant turn to presage one of the piece's loveliest sequences - Rachel Peppin and Susan Lucas dancing identical steps to create the wit of seeing double.

David Bintley's Flowers of the Forest is a moody work with a circular narrative and a remarkably fresh style. Leaping men in kilts intercutting each other on the diagonal is an image that endures.

Just as unforgettable is Anthony Dowell's production for The Royal Ballet of the Petipa-Ivanov version of Swan Lake, this time including children. So lavish are the sets and costumes that one would be forgiven for thinking one had wandered by mistake into Covent Garden on opera night. This is Russia at its most imperial: velvet, furs, golden palace gates, ornamental mirrors. The lakeside scenes are a feathery fairyland in silver. But the opulence is also a weakness: the costumes hide the poetry of the movement - like listening to music with ear-plugs.

Darcey Bussell in her London debut as Odette/Odile is technically flawless. How disappointing then that she is too strong for a role that cries out for a dancer so fragile she makes you think her bones are going to break. Bussell is not ethereal enough, not sad enough. In The South Bank Show tonight she will reveal that in performance she feels as though she is in 'a magical box'. On Thursday night, perhaps through nerves, she lifted the lid of that box but never jumped in.

Merce Cunningham, QEH, tonight, 071-928 8800; B'ham Royal Ballet touring from 2 Nov; 'Swan Lake', tomorrow, Wed, Sat, 071-240 1066.

(Photograph omitted)