Stravinsky: the man who made the music that made the dance

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The Independent Culture
NO COMPOSER has exerted such influence on dance as Igor Stravinsky. Not only was he a prolific writer of ballet music, but he also had a talent for being in the right place at the right time: in Paris with Diaghilev and in New York with Balanchine. It's no coincidence that the chief features of his music - its spiky rhythmic drive, its unromantic harmonies, the jazz, the neo- classicism - all find direct parallels in the 20th-century ballet. The music was more than inspiration: it made the dance. And judging by the Royal Ballet's latest programme, Stravinsky Staged, with pieces spanning 1911 to 1995, its catalytic force remains undimmed.

Two works are new to the company repertory and two are popular mainstays. Danses Concertantes was Kenneth MacMillan's first commission in 1955 and though this is its umpteenth revival, it comes up as fresh as paint. Set in a tiled Art Deco gym, swimsuited health-and-beauty types work out with imaginary dumb-bells and breast-stroke. The men strike Charles Atlas poses, the women preen and MacMillan finds a curious bouncing gait to match the doll-like aesthetic - a sort of aerial prance like the Woodentops. Leanne Benjamin, the soloist, spins on point back and forth as if suspended on a string; the ensemble is immaculate in its witty synchronised-swimming formations. No wonder the company won't let this one lie.

The only disappointment in the new work by Ashley Page, set to the jazzy, sexy Ebony Concerto, is that it is so brief. No sooner are our eyes accustomed to the smoky gloom of Antony McDonald's jazz-club setting, than the houselights are up again. But it repays the effort not to blink for nine minutes. A large, on-stage jazz-band summons shades of Billie and Duke while two couples, dressed to kill, engage and disengage as if casually on a dance- floor. But their pas de deux are steamily intense, the women wrapping themselves sinuously around the men's torsos and arching backwards over their backs to liberate wheeling limbs. This ballet would be an exciting addition to the repertoire, but I wonder how often even opera-house budgets will run to a second orchestra in one night.

Balanchine's Duo Concertant, devised in 1972 for New York City Ballet but new to here, is a more reflective affair. A boy and a girl (Viviana Durante and Bruce Sansom - a harmonious pair) lean over the piano while pianist and violinist play. An entire movement passes, just listening. Then, apparently inspired, they walk to a space and dance together, matching the limpid conversation between violin and piano, occasionally stopping and wandering back to the piano, as if for fresh ideas. It is simple, unaffected and coolly lovely, pure dance.

To finish there is Petrushka, the 20th-century crowd-pleaser with its busy street scenes, dancing bear, gypsy girls and whatnot. Irek Mukhamedov is the draw in this revival, making his company dbut as the love-struck puppet. It is odd to see his great muscular frame reduced to jitters, his hands swamped in clumsy mittens, his movement obscured by a fluttery Mr Punch outfit. Fokine does not require Petrushka to dance much, just to inhabit the part, and in Mukhamedov the eyes do it all. His heavy, doleful features seem to restore Russian-ness to the piece. In face and physique Mukhamedov could not be less like the feline Nijinsky who created the role, yet the melancholy is 100 per cent St Petersburg.

Another Russian made her mark on a classic this week in Scottish Ballet's Swan Lake, caught on a rare flight south to Woking Dance Umbrella. Galina Samsova musters 46 dancers to swell her flock of swans in a luxury new production based closely on the original Ivanov/Petipa movement. Daria Klimentova makes a superb principal, her arms supple as silk ribbons when taking to the air as Odette, spitefully angular as the seductress Odile. But an equal star is Jasper Conran, the designer, who proves for once that high fashion can have its uses. Whoever would have thought that this season's penchant for violet chiffon could translate so well to the stage, or that swans' down tutus might look so modish. There's no going back, Mr Conran. Ballet needs you.

`Stravinsky': ROH, 071-304 4000, Wed. `Swan Lake': Eden Court, Inverness, 0463 221718, Thurs-Sat.