It's a mystery to me why Balanchine is such a favourite opener in a mixed bill. Ballet companies tend to use him in the way pianists use a Mozart sonata to set a context of blithe classical purity before the meatier stuff gets underway. But just like Mozart, Balanchine is merciless in exposing weaknesses in the performers' stamina, precision and style. In his Donizetti Variations, which opened this show, City Ballet's corps was exposed to a painful degree. The olde worlde romance of the piece was undermined at every turn by wobbly balances and fixed grins, and a bizarre toe-stubbing incident reminiscent of a send-up by the Trocks. The young principals, Joanne de Souza and Vitali Malko, were so tentative in their pas de deux one could only assume that the otherwise excellent de Souza was terrified Malko would drop her.
Things took a dramatic upturn, though, in a commission by King from one of our most interesting choreographers. Mark Baldwin's The Man With a Moustache takes its cue from the music of the 1920s eccentric Lord Berners, Britain's answer to Erik Satie. Seven short movements, bearing whimsical titles such as "White Mice" and "Strauss, Strauss et Strauss", are fashioned by Baldwin into a kind of balletic harlequinade, danced under a Rousseau night sky. Andrew Flint-Shipman's startling designs and costumes add to this delightful sense of a world askew: a backdrop of luscious flowers and fruit crawling with insects; and multi-coloured tutus like dahlias, disconcertingly worn with stick-on moustaches and bowler hats. Baldwin's choreography plays up to these subversive elements, paradoxically, by keeping strictly within the bounds of conventional classical steps. And this also happens to show off the company to its best advantage. His original thinking shows itself in subtler ways, such as having the central couple walk their way through a rousing Viennese waltz, or smirk mysteriously at each other throughout a pas de deux which resembles more a decorous sparring match than the usual love-in.
If there is a criticism of this intriguing piece, it's that the use of madcap props - a giant pair of carved red lips and a huge moustache, solemnly carted on and off by the dancers - is rather underdone. It's as if a very British restraint got the better of the designer's wilder flights of fancy halfway through. But then, that's fitting to Lord Berners - an English aristo who combined a spell in the diplomatic service with a career writing music to his pet parrot. City Ballet is on to a winner with this nutty little number. And what a confidence-builder it was too. When the curtain went up on the final work, a big, muscular piece of neo-classicism by the Hungarian Istvan Herczog, it was hard to recognise these glossily assured dancers as the same we'd seen an hour earlier. Principals Oxana Panchenko and Marius Els seemed hardly mortal and the whole company had glamour. Lord Rothermere would have been well pleased.
Buxton Opera House (01298 72190), 17-19 Sept; Crawley Hawth, (01293 553636), 25 & 26 Sept; Southsea King's Theatre (01705 828282), 9 & 10 Oct; Basingstoke Anvil (01256 844244), 23 & 24 Oct.