DANCE / Victorious by a whisker: Judith Mackrell sees the Royal Ballet's Tales of Beatrix Potter

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The Independent Culture
IN 1970, when it was first put to Frederick Ashton that he might turn Beatrix Potter's Tales into a ballet, the alarmed choreographer protested that 'people would say the old man's gaga'. Admittedly, in works like The Dream or Fille Mal Gardee, Ashton had proved that he could make wonderful ballets out of pastoral, fantastic, even sentimental material. But waltzing mice?

Ashton did finally agree to work on a film of the Tales. And to a score by John Lanchbery, assembled out of Victorian and Edwardian theatre music, he concocted a series of charming danced divertissements. 22 years on, in a move shamelessly geared to the Christmas box office, the Royal Ballet has in turn adapted the original choreography and designs from celluloid to stage.

Dancing animals may be anathema to many adults, and Tales of Beatrix Potter is hardly a masterpiece of the Ashton canon. Yet the pleasures of the film have been transferred successfully enough to the theatre to seduce most grown-ups as well as children. One of the major reasons for the ballet's viability remains the seriousness with which the choreography has been handled - the lack of cutesiness, archness or patronising cleverness that would tip the whole thing into vulgarity.

Not only are the characters well observed, with Ashton, like Potter, finding a workable and witty balance between animal and human behaviour. But they are also, within the confines of their costumes, given proper dance to do. The pas de deux for Pig Wig and Pigling Bland displays all the elegance and decorum given to classical lovers; Jemima Puddleduck isn't quite a Swan Princess but has a muddling ballerina grace.

This brisk and fluent choreography looks dapperly comic in conjunction with Rostislav Doboujinsky's huge masks and Christine Edzard's giant padded outfits. The stage designs also play nicely with scale. Yet charming as the stage version is, it can't overcome the weakness that was also central to the film - the lack of sufficient action to sustain the ballet's pace. Dramatic scenes like the Two Bad Mice wrecking a dolls house or Jemima Puddleduck's encounter with the Fox are in short supply. With the work running at 70 minutes, most will find there's a limit to the appeal of people dancing in outsized furry outfits, however generously the masked cast perform.

Dance of a much more estranged kind was also given its London premiere last week in London Contemporary Dance Theatre's performances of Amanda Miller's My Father's Vertigo at Sadler's Wells (ended Saturday). Evidently Vertigo is about people trying to put down roots in an alienated world. Inexplicable back projections coupled with stark lighting continually distort the stage space. Fred Frith's String Quartet No 1 supplies an appropriately nervy and attenuated sound. And the dancers frequently move with a kind of unclear purposefulness, as if trying to lead real and busy lives, but failing to connect.

Some of Miller's movement is powerfully odd - dislocations of a classical language that are woozy and somnambulistic, spikey and neurotic. At times, too, little vignettes surface to point the theme - a sudden pointless brawl, solos where the dancers gesture and mutter through some intent business of their own. Yet there's a great deal of rather ordinary and motiveless choreogaphy going on too, and no clear shape to the piece. The fact that ideas stop and start, that the choreography never seems to find an inner propulsion could be seen as an overarching metaphor for modern city life - a less charitable view would be that it was a failure of the choreographer's stamina and vision.

Royal Opera House (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

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