The Critics' Awards 1998: Dance - We could call it tapas dancing

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The Independent Culture
Blame fin-de-siecle fever, financial caution, or simply lack of any better ideas, but for dance, this has been a year of looking backwards. Many of the best productions have been revivals. Both the Royal companies dug deep into their back catalogues to honour their founder, Dame Ninette de Valois, 100 years old in June. The two de Valois ballets they came up with, The Rake's Progress (at the Barbican) and The Prospect Before Us (in Birmingham), required the sort of painstaking reconstruction work you get when you do a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the lid. But it was worth it. Both reminded us how the Royal once embraced the essence of Englishness as something to delight in.

They also underlined the contrast in the companies' current fortunes. While the Birmingham company thrives, in terms of morale the Royal Ballet in London has never been sicker. Six male soloists defected at a stroke last month, and bad blood between management and dancers still festers. It's hard to see how even a brand-new Opera House is going to pull them round next year.

Other revivals carried less baggage. American Twyla Tharp flew in to stage her hippy love-in from 1969, The 100s. One hundred members of the public - all shapes, all ages, no expertise - were each taught a single dance phrase lasting 11 seconds, and then performed them simultaneously on the Barbican stage. The effect, though brief, was explosive. Merce Cunningham also made a rare visit with his legacy of the Sixties and Seventies avant-garde: less fun than Twyla, but complex, luminous and life-enhancing.

On the home front, Siobhan Davies's company came up with the most challenging new choreography: a setting of Conlon Nancarrow's wacky music for player- piano, although the element many will remember best is the spectacular two-foot beard of the man who turned the handle. Richard Alston also hit a rich seam with his lyrical new Brahms Liedersliebe Waltzes, which he took the trouble to present with a fine quartet of singers and two pianists. Live music does make a difference.

The year brought losses and gains. With the early death of Christopher Gable, dance lost a great teacher and theatrical innovator. How tragic that Gable didn't live to see his company, Northern Ballet Theatre, take his production of Dracula to the new Sadler's Wells early next year. Of the year's gains, of course, the opening of that magnificent theatre tops the list. With its state-of-the-art facilities, not to mention sheer scale, at last it's possible for international companies to visit London. Ballett Frankfurt was the first, and William Forsythe's formidable troupe of ballet deconstructionists lived up to the hype.

But of all the companies to tread Sadler's Wells's stage so far, it's been Rambert that made the biggest buzz - not in its fanfare of mixed bills, when the frantic brinkmanship of the theatre opening (or not) may have dulled its edge - but when it returned with Cruel Garden, the full-evening work created with Lindsay Kemp 20 years ago. Ostensibly a narrative about the life and death of the poet Lorca, the show is a kaleidoscope of mime, song and vibrant dance swirled into a hyper-charged dream which manages to encompass the salient features of Lorca's work as well as his violent end. Flamboyant, full of theatrical swagger, yet never OTT, Rambert's revival made you grateful that it had the nerve to say: "Have another look at this. It was good then. And it's even better now."

t Ballet of 1998: `Cruel Garden'