The magic in the mixing

DANCE Stravinsky Staged Royal Opera House
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The Independent Culture
After the first performance of Balanchine's Duo Concertant in 1972, Jerome Robbins asked the choreographer: "How did you have the nerve to just do that - I mean, they stand there for eight bars of music doing the same step." To which Balanchine replied: "Well, that's what the music said." Few would argue with his explanation - if only because Balanchine and Stravinsky forged the greatest alliance of choreographer and composer of the 20th century. But watching the Royal Ballet's Viviana Durante and Bruce Sansom adopt and explore that simple open-close step which left Robbins so flummoxed, you realise Balanchine knew exactly what he was talking about.

Duo Concertant, which entered the repertoire in January, as part of the company's "Dance Bites" tour, is one of four works on the Royal Ballet's new mixed bill, entitled "Stravinsky Staged". Balanchine wasn't the first choreographer to arrange a couple of dancers around an on-stage pianist and violinist, but in Duo Concertant he guides our eyes and ears towards processes by which sound and shape bond and unify. At the ballet's end, he adds a third dimension - light (or rather the lack of it) - opting for a sudden darkness of mood in response to Stravinsky's frugal Dithyramb.

Still, this is restrained stuff compared to Fokine's Petrushka, the evening's big, irresistible wedge of narrative drama. With its "Stravinsky Staged" programme, the Royal has managed to address the problem of mixed bills without pandering to the inbred conservatism of its audience. For anyone in need of a story ballet after the mild obscurantism of Duo Concertant, MacMillan's Danses Concertantes and Ashley Page's new Ebony Concerto, Petrushka delivers the goods. All those Russian peasants, nursemaids and hawkers; all the vivid colour of Benois's St Petersburg faades and costumes; a score which cues every action but still has a life of its own; and Irek Mukhamedov, in the title role.

As the puppet who falls in love with his companion Ballerina (Lesley Collier) only to be rejected and subsequently murdered by the sabre-wielding Moor, Mukhamedov expresses every ounce of Petrushka's sorrow, frustration and anguish, the jumping jack leaps of his erratic optimism at sad and apt variance with the impotence of his rigid, mittened hands.

When his object of desire flees from Mukhamedov's compartment, we see a tormented soul; a puppet with a human heart and, in the Ballerina's case, a doll touched by fear and repulsion. Cut to the Moor's room, where Gary Avis - a lascivious, blacked-up caricature - gets up to some curious things with a coconut before an oily duet with Collier. This is interrupted by Mukhamedov and culminates in a frantic chase signalling the ensuing tragedy. The unexpected twist to Fokine's ballet is that Petrushka has the last laugh. And as Mukhamedov waves from the roof, we not only see the puppet's deliverance from his unhappy fate, but his morbidly gleeful revenge on the Conjuror (David Drew) responsible for imprisoning him.

A more modern imprisonment afflicts Ebony Concerto, set to Stravinksy's 1945 score for the clarinettist Woody Herman. Page places the jazz ensemble up-stage, creating an ultra-cool, 1940s-retro look, his two couples half gangster and moll, half Fred and Ginger, captured in a smoky, sepia-toned ballroom. Flashy moves abound, but their cold authority prompts a detached interest in Page's taste for complicated technical manoeuvres and in his use of women as little more than muscularly elegant pairs of legs.

n At the Royal Opera House, London WC2 on 5, 6, 12 and 17 April. Box- office: 0171-304 4000