Dance: We're on the march with Romeo's red army


THEY SAID it couldn't be done. And they were wrong. Arena ballet can be made to work - on its own terms. English National Ballet's Swan Lake last year took advantage of the vast arena of the Albert Hall to create some magical patterns with 60 swans. Could Derek Deane repeat the trick with Romeo and Juliet?

Unlike Swan Lake, this is not a sacred text: Prokofiev's score was not produced as a ballet until 1938 and now exists in many versions. Derek Deane danced in Kenneth MacMillan's production and obviously remembers it with particular affection. His steps are well assembled and neatly danced but the overall effect is boring and busy - Deane has a definite problem with the ebb and flow of personnel.

The production designer, Roberta Guidi di Bagno, only had space for one real set, a castle gateway below the organ which screens the orchestra perched above it. Clearly, if all the dramatis personae use the same exit it's going to look a bit like a fire drill, so Deane makes repeated use of the public gangways. Big mistake. This constant activity in the aisles spoils the sightlines and even when the comings and goings have ceased for a moment, the perimeter of the stage is so cluttered with townsfolk that it is hard for the stalls to follow the plot. Higher seats probably fare better.

Deane tries to clear the decks for the big fight in Act I, but not only is the mass exodus distracting, it's also highly unlikely. Let's face it: if a ding-dong sword fight started in your shopping centre, you wouldn't choose that moment to go home.

Formal set pieces work better, such as the "Cushion Dance" in which the Capulets come out in force and give us that awful sense of a violent caste at play. Deane's kaleidoscopic patterns make excellent use of the space. Unfortunately, Howard Harrison's screamingly unsubtle red light made the crimson-velveted corps appear to be swimming in Benylin. Lady Capulet was danced by Lynn Seymour (MacMillan's original Juliet in 1965). Seymour, who has been enjoying an Indian summer of plum parts with Adventures in Motion Pictures, seems to be locked in Wicked Stepmother mode, but she still dominated every scene.

Mercutio was the saucy, belligerent Dmitri Gruzdyev and little Laurentiu Guinea snarled his way through Tybalt like a mini-cab driver with a grudge. But we were waiting for the grand pas de deux.

The gateway opened and Juliet's balcony lurched out across the floor and pirouetted like a vast, balustraded Dalek. The audience giggled and Tamara Rojo was lucky not to throw up over the side.

Her running romp with handsome Roberto Bolle contained the usual quota of impassioned embraces and travelling lifts. The couple look good together but it was Rojo's fluid phrasing and heartfelt acting that really stirred the blood.

The first night of ENB's arena Swan Lake last year starred the Kirov guest, Altynai Asylmuratova, and once again Deane has cunningly used one sublime performance to transform the evening. After the business with the balcony I had not expected to be moved to anything but laughter by this production but Tamara Rojo's remarkable Juliet reduced me to tears.

To 30 June, RAH, London (0171 589 8212). Tamara Rojo is scheduled to dance tonight, Tuesday and Friday


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