The Critics: Dance: I've found my dream team

Nederlands Dans Theater Sadler's Wells, London Darcey Bussell Hampton Court Palace Swan Lake Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
The provinces, enviously, think everything happens in London. Londoners, smugly, think everything happens in London. And all of us are deluded. The unpalatable truth is that much of the best of Europe's art of the past 20 years has passed us by. Jiri Kylian, maker of some of the world's most beautiful ballets and director for two decades of one of the world's most dazzling and innovative dance companies, brought his fabled show to London last week for the very first time. And even that was a fluke.

Sadler's Wells' subsidy is too small to fund visits by the likes of Nederlands Dans Theater. (The Wells brought us up to date with those other European greats, Pina Bausch and Frankfurt Ballet: both sold out, but still left the theatre in the red.) The cancellation pay-out from the Royal Opera made this visit possible. An interesting trade-off, that: 19th-century opera for cutting-edge dance. But, at last, we knew what we'd been missing.

Merely as a collection of bodies, the Nederlands lot are a formidable sight. The cream of dance talent from 16 countries, these precision-tooled athletes are picked for conformity: legs, slope of shoulder and set of head are all of a type. Uncharacterful? Not at all. Undistracted by shapes and sizes, the eye is free to absorb the amazing things these bodies do. My favourite, Falling Angels, created by Kylian 10 years ago to the savage bongo score of Steve Reich's Drumming, showed female flesh rendered to sprung steel.

Imagine 52 movement instructions printed on a pack of cards, then shuffled and dealt very fast. Then imagine eight women playing out this flickering cartoon in perfect synch: mimicking ninepins keeled over, lurching forward and back as if their soles were nailed to the floor, wriggling like eels in sand, grimacing, waving or clapping their hands over their ears in comic despair over the din of the bongos. When it ends, you want to leap up and shout.

Kylian could have hogged the limelight in this programme (he's made 50 works for NDT, so we've plenty to catch up on) but he chose to share it with choreographers Hans Van Manen and the young Briton Paul Lightfoot. Manen's slinky setting of Bach chorale preludes I could take or leave - elegant as it was - but Lightfoot's Shangri-La was a visual riddle that intrigues me still. A forest of silver birch trunks on stage (a Romantic forest?), grandiose Russian circus music, a man with a neon halo, and a chorus line which bust a gut trying to dance while supporting a huge tree trunk. I decided it was all a clever burlesque on Romanticism. Enormous fun, whatever.

Symphony of Psalms, a classic of 1978, showed the lyrical side of Kylian's art: a heroically simple response to Stravinsky's grand choral work. This is not so much a danced prayer to God as a rhapsody to human frailty. Against a back wall hung with threadbare Persian rugs, lines of men and women flood the stage in waves of human emotion, grieving and cleaving. Solo cameos drop from the waves like pebbles. Stravinsky's great, breathed final "Hallelujah" sends the couples walking, reluctant, into dark nothingness. Kylian has taken a towering expression of early 20th-century faith and welded to it an expression of late 20th-century agnosticism. Is it significant that they can sit so happily together? We must see more of this man's work: soon.

The tartan rugs were out for Darcey Bussell at Hampton Court, where a crowd of some 2,000-plus braved the cool night air to watch DB and friends (clearly under-employed by the Royal Ballet) in the Palace courtyard. At pounds 35 a ticket for a hard seat and an hour of dancing, I was more than ready to find fault with this new excuse for flogging champagne and overpriced strawberries. Yes, the programme was bitty and sometimes slight. Chunks of Nutcracker and Manon were hopelessly lost on an audience that didn't know plum from tart. And Darcey's assault on Carmen, choreographed by her chum William Tuckett, achieved nothing beyond a general gasp when, as an opening gesture, she drew up one slender shin to touch the tip of her nose. But there were gems. Darcey's duet from Balanchine's Agon, arm- wrestled by a sleek Adam Cooper, showed her at her expansive, clean-limbed best. And her Ravel duet, in Christopher Hampson's fragrant setting of the Pavane, caused a temporary stoppage to many male hearts as Cooper unwound her from her oyster satin skirt with epicurean finesse. All this in Henry VIII's front yard.

Swan Lake is back at the Albert Hall in the latest tranche of Derek Deane's plan to bring ballet to the masses. It looks even better than before: the drilling of the 60-odd swans in the white acts is impeccable and the effect is truly stirring. What's more, this is one of those shows in a million where the cheap seats are the better option. Take field glasses for the solos and view the avian splendours from the gods.

Swan Lake: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212) to Sat; then tours Glasgow, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham

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