American Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London

Millepied gets back to the day job, and not a swan in sight
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The Independent Culture

Size isn't everything. But in the case of American Ballet Theatre, an abundance of stars certainly makes for variety – useful when touting eight short ballets rathen than a single whopper.

Swan Lake was the opener on the mega-company's last visit in 2009, and given the suddenly elevated profile of that work, thanks to a certain Gothic-horror flick tipped for the Oscars, I bet they wish they had scheduled it again. Instead, ABT plumped for two programmes of shorts, several of them new to British audiences. Even so, one of these managed to hitch a ride on Black Swan by dint of its choreographer being the future Mr Natalie Portman. Thanks to this connection, Benjamin Millepied has become tabloid fodder over the Pond, and is arguably the biggest danseur to make the crossover into pop culture since Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Millepied's Everything Doesn't Happen At Once is an ambitious, spiky-looking piece for a big ensemble and a strung-out, on-stage band, whose playing of David Lang's rhythmically head-butting score might have benefited from a more compact seating arrangement. The poor conductor practically had to email the furthest-flung players to keep them together.

True to the work's title, a great deal happens in its own good time, and Millepied achieves some memorable effects with a cast of 24. Linked dancers walk in profile like figures on a Greek vase, and a milling crowd clusters into a single sharp pose in a fraction of a second. More lyrically the girls, in staggered entries, float in travelling lifts across the space, like swarms of hatching dragonflies, all limbs and weightlessness.

The other treat of Programme I was Twyla Tharp's Junk Duet, so called not only because its fun score, by Donald Knaack, is generated from discarded household goods, but because its choreography recycles offhand, slutty moves as ballet. Gillian Murphy, a luscious redhead in a tiny slither of skirt, is stupendously sexy as she flips smoothly from formal jetés to grungey hip-twitching shuffles. Smooth mover Blaine Hoven, cursed with a grey trackie ensemble, could hardly compete, but scored comedy points for trying.

Less successful, though beautifully danced, was Alexei Ratmansky's new Seven Sonatas. A traditional piano ballet (the sonatas are by Scarlatti), it ought to have been all about the music, but was kiboshed by militantly pedestrian playing from the on-stage pianist. And there was more indifferent musicianship in Balanchine's Duo Concertant, which again throws the focus on the players, the two dancers listening intently round the piano. Biased I may be, but the Royal Ballet would never put up such a poor show. Is this musical lapse a result, I wonder, of American ballet companies' general downgrading of live music in rehearsal? There must be a knock-on.

Things improved, music-wise, for Programme II (the pick-up orchestra was British). A fine Theme and Variations, one of Balanchine's hommages to the grandeur of old St Petersburg, had poise and scale, and dazzlingly clean double-turns from the boys in the corps, right down to the last Brad and Chuck in the back row. Antony Tudor's moonlit Lilac Garden had the requisite balance of swooning melodrama and finesse, with Julie Kent (a veteran of 25 years with the company) transparently fragile and girlish as the Henry Jamesian reluctant fiancée, tortured by what might have been when she bumps into the man she really loves at a party. In Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the Argentine spitfire Herman Cornejo drew cheers for his aeronautics.

Best, though, was Paul Taylor's soft-shoe hit Company B, set to songs by the Andrews Sisters. Taylor could easily have gone for the obvious and made this a jingoistic, purely feel-good number. Instead, American master that he is, he insinuates a note of melancholy. These eager and heedless young people in their army-issue slacks and skirts, these boogying bugle boys and their girls, are being sent off to war, and may not return. Throughout, at odd moments, men fall to the floor, as if shot down, and not one couple exits the stage together.

Prog II today only (0844 412 4300)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert eyes up Balletboyz: The Talent

Dance Choice

Destined to shed sunlight on the dog days of winter, Sadler's Wells's Flamenco Festival, above, kicks off (Tue) with a line-up including Estrella Morente, Mercedez Ruiz and Eva Yerbabuena. At Covent Garden's Linbury Studio, the ever more impressive Ballet Black launches a tour on its 10th anniversary. Work includes the premiere of Will Tuckett's Orpheus. (Wed to Sat, then touring).