Such fluff as dreams are made on

If you go down to the ballet today, you won't be able to move for whiskers and tails. Louise Levene charts the rise and rise of cuddly choreography: dance's new fur trade
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The Independent Culture
What has four legs, cute whiskers and a big fluffy tail? A ballet dancer. Scarcely a company in the country these days can get through the pantomime season without disembowelling a few soft toys. The Royal Ballet has the Tales of Beatrix Potter and Peter and the Wolf, Scottish Ballet has just exhumed Graham Lustig's crocodile-ridden Peter Pan and English National Ballet has always had a suitably rat-infested Nutcracker and now boasts an Alice in Wonderland. Coming soon: Toad of Toad Hall in tights.

There is an honourable tradition of animal representation in classical ballet. La Bayadere is a positive zoo, with a giant wheeled elephant, a stuffed tiger and sundry patriots all lending a suitably exotic flavour to this mildly curried love story. From the same stable comes the best- known animal act in straight ballet: Swan Lake. The pliant arms and bendy spines of the imperial ballet's dancers suggested the sinuous lines of the swan and the duck's arse of the tutu's frilled underskirts managed to suggest feathers without obliging the ballerina to wear a long orange beak.

Quite why this large, aggressive bird should have seized the imaginations of Petipa and Ivanov is a bit of a mystery. Most commentators blame Ludwig of Bavaria. The public appetite for lugubrious wildfowl was further exploited by Mikhail Fokine in 1907 when he created The Dying Swan, a tiny solo for Anna Pavlova who toured with it incessantly. Ninette de Valois enjoyed a more modest success as the baleful bird when she performed the dance from memory on the ends of various seaside piers as a girl in 1913: "My `death' was always ferociously encored," she recalled. Beaky but expressive, The Dying Swan is not particularly athletic and age is no barrier to its execution. The last London performance of note was when Maya Plisetskaya dusted down her feathered tutu for a gala performance at the Albert Hall. She was 65 at the time.

Swans are one thing, squirrels quite another. Like butterflies and firebirds and fauns and all the other inhabitants of the 19th-century ballet, swans are beautiful and mysterious and they arrive bearing intriguing Teutonic baggage. Squirrels don't. Nobody is going to pay good money to see The Dying Squirrel.

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed squirrels are a different story. British ballet audiences in particular have grown to enjoy the incongruous juxtaposition of fouettes and fur fabric. Frederick Ashton's 1960 masterpiece La Fille Mal Gardee fuses classical bravura, old-style mime and the English pantomime tradition in a jolly two-act work which instantly reveals its good nature when the frontcloth rises to disclose four enormous dancing chickens. The enduring critical and popular success of this ballet may have encouraged companies to think that a few yards of fur fabric and a simple story is pretty much all it takes to fill the house with undersized, overdressed punters and their parents - "To bring in an audience on the tugging arms of children", as the Financial Times once contemptuously put it.

Ten years after La Fille Mal Gardee, Ashton was still happy to choreograph for the farmyard when he made the hugely successful film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter. In 1993, five years after Ashton's death, the Royal Ballet had a brainwave (or brainstorm) when it decided that this short and whimsical film could be transferred to the stage. They were not discouraged by the absence of plot and the patent unsuitability of costumes designed for dancers who had been able to rest and cool down between takes. The film retains its charm but the staged ballet often fails to replicate it. In theory, a dancing eggbound duck isn't a million miles away from the chickens in La Fille Mal Gardee but the difference is that, in the 1960 work, the chickens are a delicious fragment of a richly textured full-length piece. Beatrix Potter is the balletic equivalent of a cake made exclusively of marzipan. Mind you, there are people who actually like marzipan.

Occasional ballet-goers are a sentimental lot. They may want their family outings to be a cut above Lionel Blair's Buttons, yet there is nothing they like better than a virtuoso in a mask and fur fabric pyjamas. The Royal Ballet's first season of Beatrix Potter was so successful that extra matinees had to be laid on to vacuum up the excess demand. Peter Rabbit may get a big thumbs-down every time he sticks his furry snout over the garden wall, yet these nursery vignettes clearly possess a powerful charm and the ballet is as prettily dressed, childlike and undemanding as its audience.

Derek Deane, artistic director of the English National Ballet, admits the appeal that the odd animal suit has for younger audiences but denies that his own new work, Alice in Wonderland, was created with children in mind. "It was constructed to appeal to all age groups," he protests. Unlikely as that may seem, the box-office bears him out. The thought of fluffy rabbit, cat and caterpillar was so potent that the company's regional dates sold out weeks before the ballet had even premiered and had ballet- goers fighting for returned tickets. "The public response to it has been greater than any other ballet the company has ever done," Deane trumpets.

Until recently, ENB's public was baying for The Nutcracker, which has always been its signature work, and every winter it tours the country with it like a Flying Dutchman in tights. The ballet has Something For Everyone; ie, fighting multi-headed rat warriors and large tubs of ice- cream hold the attention of juvenile ballet-goers while their keepers savour the grand pas de deux. Derek Deane has had it up to here with the Sugar Plum Fairy - and who can blame him? "Sixty-five Nutcrackers a year is very hard on the company."

He hopes Alice will enable him to vary the steady diet of sugared rats but that is the only ulterior motive he will admit to in creating this shameless crowd-pleaser. When Alice premiered this winter, several dance critics interpreted the piece as a hard-headed if soft-centred mechanism for acquiring revenue to bankroll more interesting work. Deane denies it - well, he would, wouldn't he? "I'm very proud of the production," he insists.

But isn't the prospect of all those talented ballet dancers encased in fur fabric and latex a tad depressing? Not at all. Besides, he has made sure that the costumes don't overpower the dancers. Although based on the original illustrations of Lewis Carroll, Sue "Rocky Horror" Blane's masks and costumes were all made on the dancers' bodies and were often de-Tennielised in production. "I wanted the dancers to be able to come through the costumes. I worked with the mask-maker very closely because I dreaded it coming out as faceless as Beatrix Potter," says Deane, who is no fan of Christine Edzard's meticulous reconstructions of Potter's furry friends.

Her designs demand that dancers perform virtuoso feats while encased in fur fabric on a stage where the temperature hovers around 80 degrees. "They are a nightmare to dance in from the breathing point of view. Some of the characters have to almost be hospitalised afterwards," Deane alleges.

His envy of the Royal Ballet's more secure financial position is undisguised and the pressure on him to create and commission good box-office material can make him a little defensive. "We are not privileged enough to be weighed down with funding. Our survival is at the box-office." The ballet critics know what popular success means to ENB and are also gratefully conscious of the huge improvements Deane has wrought in a company that only a few years ago was in serious decline. This goodwill is reflected in the considerate reviews - if Anthony Dowell had mounted Alice for the Royal Ballet, he would have been crucified.

For all his belief in Alice as honest entertainment, ENB's director is appalled at the thought that once he starts pandering to the popular taste for family ballets, he might be expected to turn them out on a regular basis. "I don't want to get to the stage where every year I have to do a ballet for that market." He clearly believes that works such as Alice create a new audience for more serious works, but isn't there a danger that he merely creates an entirely separate audience with an insatiable appetite for more fluff? Isn't there a danger that financial pressures will force ENB to spend the summer in pussy cat costumes for Alice and the winter in rat costumes for The Nutcracker? Derek Deane will have none of it: "I don't think so. I hope I'm right. I hope we're creating exciting situations that will bring people back to see different works. If I didn't have those beliefs, I might as well shoot myself."

n The English National Ballet dances `The Nutcracker' at the Royal Festival Hall, London, SE1 to 6 Jan. Booking: 0171-960 4242. The company will dance `Alice in Wonderland' at the London Colisseum next spring. Booking: 0171- 632 8300.

n The Royal Ballet performs `The Tales of Beatrix Potter' tonight and 1,5,6 Jan, ROH, Covent Garden, London, WC2. Booking: 0171-304 4000