reviews: BALLET Les Patineurs, Royal Opera House, London For all his heavyweight footwork, Tetsuya Kumakawa only scratches the surface of Frederick Ashton's subtle skating piece

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The Independent Culture
Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs, set to Constance Lambert's neatly tailored arrangement of some of Meyerbeer's most catchy tunes, is a ballet about skaters and skating. Nothing remarkable in that, given that dancing has long been an important part of skating's artistry. But because Les Patineurs was first performed in 1937, it reveals something of the way in which people skated or ice-danced - 60 years ago. And that, perhaps, is the clue to why this most lightweight of Ashton's works is more than just a quaint picture of winter recreation.

These days, ice rinks seem full of rowdy youths who can barely stand upright in their support boots. I doubt that every skating pond observed or imagined by Ashton when he made Les Patineurs qualified as a model of refined social interaction. But the ballet "skaters" here have ventured out for nothing more than some well-mannered sliding and gliding. Nearly all progress to more ambitious manoeuvres, but Ashton reserves the most conspicuous feats of virtuosity for the Blue Boy, a lone figure who wheel- jumps around the stage and is left spinning on the spot as the curtain falls. Unfortunately, Tetsuya Kumakawa treats the role of the Blue Boy in much the same way that he treats any role: with an excess of technique coupled with an irritating flippancy. Sure, he's meant to dazzle us, but Kumakawa turns the choreography's fleet-footed teasers into a series of hollow stunts. The effect is ruinous to the intrinsic, gentle charm of Ashton's ballet. He's the ballet's outsider for all the wrong reasons - accosting us with tricks that seem self-congratulatory and vacuous next to the occasional swanking of Ashton's merry band of skaters.

In the work's central pas de deux - an extended romantic interlude for a couple in white, fur-trimmed Sunday best - Stuart Cassidy and Muriel Valtat demonstrate all the shapely, unhurried elegance of movement and phrasing. Dated yet still charming, Les Patineurs is a vision of that "celebrated sweet kind" of skating, as the great American critic Edwin Denby described Sonja Henie's 1940s ice dances.

Less sweet but more twee is the revival of that seasonal money-spinner, Tales of Beatrix Potter, Ashton's film choreography transposed to the stage by Anthony Dowell. Organised as a collection of dances for Potter's animal characters - Mrs Tiggy-winkle, Jeremy Fisher, Squirrel Nutkin - it's most likely to appeal to children and to the sort of adults who still collect cuddly toys. Potter's unsentimental treatment of her own animals - the real-life model for Mrs Tiggy-winkle was put down with chloroform - is barely hinted at, although the fox who chases Jemima Puddle-duck in the hope of a tasty meal, and the bacon truck which pulls up next to Pigling Bland and Pig-wig provide some respite from all the flopsy bunny cuteness of this 70-minute animal fare.

At the Royal Opera House, London WC2, 1, 5, 6 Jan. Booking: 0171-304 4000