DANCE / Three smart moves: Judith Mackrell on Dance Bites, the Royal Ballet's mini national tour of 20th-century ballets

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The Independent Culture
Dance Bites, the Royal Ballet's mini national tour of five 20th-century ballets, has nicely trounced the prejudice that audiences outside London need their ballets gift-wrapped in tutus and Tchaikovsky. Both Leicester and Cambridge produced capacity crowds for a programme featuring three new works and music by Lutoslawski, Stravinsky and electronic minimalist Thom Willems.

If it was good to see the public willing to try the unknown, it was even better to see the Royal's younger choreographers getting a chance to make works for stages smaller and less pressured than the Opera House's. William Tuckett's last two ballets have seemed disappointingly intimidated by the grand scale of Covent Garden, but in his new quartet Desirable Hostilities he is back on more confident ground.

Set to five Bach preludes, the choreography finds a tough, reckless drive in the music. Four dancers dodge and parry through jokey sexual skirmishes. There's danger in the movement but also a tender exploration of emerging desire - as if the dancers are poised between playground games and adult awareness. Tuckett's movement is inflected with sharp, kooky gestures that carry the drama and punctuate the music's rhythms; there's also a relaxed weight to his choreography that looks both casual and sensuous.

At moments his enthusiasm for making each step new produces dancing that's fiddly and contrived. Some effects just don't come off; but others are surprising and beautiful and set flattering challenges to the four excellent performers.

Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes provoke a similarly adversarial response from Matthew Hart - a predatory woman seducing and preying on her male. Hart treads a fluent path through the music, relishing its danceable rhythms and producing some very watchable movement. But there's a hint of tackiness in the split-crotch moves with which the woman (Leanne Benjamin) encircles her prey, a tackiness that's made to look silly and nasty by Yolanda Sonnabend's designs, which set the whole duet up as a grisly / erotic encounter between a spider and a fly.

Bruce McLean's designs for Ashley Page's Renard are, however, exemplary. He has constructed a cunningly stylised, multi-level hen-coop that allows for dramatic chases, plus droll costumes that hover between timeless fable, classical dress and revivalist street fashion. The hens are in tutus with little red combs like Parisian hats, the cock has a huge scarlet penis, the goat a kipper tie.

Page's choreography tells the story in a similar mix of academic dance, vernacular gesture and literal drama. The hens don't exactly scratch and gobble, but flutter on deft and nervy pointwork. The cock wheels and jumps with crowing energy. The fox is a cockney wide-boy, his garrulous gestures out of the market- place or the race-track.

We know that Page can make bright and delightfully inventive movement to Stravinsky, and Renard brings out some first-class choreography. His intelligence, though, produces the ballet's only flaw, since there are moments in its witty, tongue-in-cheek rendition when the story cries out for some recalcitrantly gutsy emotion - some raw terror from the cock, some bloody violence as the fox meets his end.