Dance: The turn of the new

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The Independent Culture
Royal Ballet

Sadler's Wells, London

The war of the Titans is over. As the Bolshoi packed away its ballet shoes at the Coliseum to give its opera company a look-in, over at Sadler's Wells the was bringing its season to a close. They began on the same night, both ended last night: marketing madness. Yet for the Royal's final throw, it scored a triumphant full house. Perhaps an element of panic-buying has crept in. Ballet-lovers won't be seeing this bunch again until Covent Garden re-opens in December.

On the strength of Monday's performance, the augurs are good. This was a nicely judged programme: a paean to classical style from George Balanchine, a last-night-of-the-proms style showpiece from Ashton, and a brooding, daring, disturbing new work from the 's own William Tuckett, based on The Turn of the Screw.

It was an audacious choice of plot. Lit crit has never agreed on the true thrust of Henry James's ghost story, so what hope for dance, you might think, whose narrative means are more nebulous still? Tuckett turns this to his advantage. Whether or not the new governess dreams up the preying ghouls from her own repressed-ness; whether or not the two children have been "got at" by Miss Jessel, their old governess, or the leering Peter Quint, doesn't matter. All possibilities are addressed - in the awkward, yet overtly sensual convulsions of the governess (Zenaida Yanowsky, a fine actress); and in hints of depravity almost everywhere else.

Irek Mukhamedov makes a nightmarish Quint, sexual menace oozing from his manic scowl, but casting Miss Jessel in drag was the real dramatic coup (Bruce Sansom, decollete and flesh-crawlingly bald). It also afforded unusual partnering opportunities - one Victorian governess tossing another in the air, or levering her into somnolent submission. Bring on the smelling salts.

The score is Andrzej Panufnik's 1984 Arbor cosmica, a set of "12 Evocations for 12 Strings" whose shivery atmospherics fit the action very snugly. More evocative still are Steven Scott's sets: projections on to layered gauze which take us from sandstone facade to mullioned corridor to garden gazebo in a dreamy blur. Where the production falls down is in relaying pivotal plot details such as the intercepted letter: what we saw was a mystifying number of characters waving a bit of paper. On balance, though, Tuckett has produced something brave and rather fine. OK, so the late Kenneth MacMillan found simpler, more striking dance motifs for murky states of mind. But Tuckett is on the right track.

Balanchine's Serenade, his "ecstatic hymn to woman" made in 1948, is one of only a few big American classics in the Royal's repertoire, and its style continues to elude them. It's so easy for that Sapphic rapture to come across as fey. The company was on a happier footing with Ashton's Rhapsody, made 20 years ago as a birthday gift for the Queen Mum. Set to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini it was originally a showpiece for Baryshnikov. Here it made the ideal vehicle for the team's latest acquisition, the Cuban Carlos Acosta.

Ashton's idea was to mimic in ballet terms the feats of Paganini, "the Devil's fiddler". Thus the male soloist hurtles through the catalogue of runs, spins and convoluted air-turns like a fiend. Not content with these hurdles, Acosta added some extra whizzbangs of his own, including a sequence during which his legs appeared to knot and unknot themselves, then score a goal for Cuba, all in mid-jump. He was glorious. His ballerina (Viviana Durante), who doesn't show up till halfway through and then appears to ignore him (for shame!), made a sparkling foil to his glossy bravura. Together, they brought the house down. It all bodes very well for December.

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