American Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

A galaxy of stars shines fitfully
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The Independent Culture

When American Ballet Theatre's Jose Manuel Carreño bounds through Le Corsaire's pas de deux, he's greeted by the happy roar of an audience that has, at last, got what it came for. But by this point, we were more than halfway through the evening's programme. ABT's first night was a frustratingly mixed bag, with a programme that only just shows off these dancers.

There has been great excitement over this Sadler's Wells visit, ABT's first British appearance in 17 years. This is one of the world's major companies, known for gathering galaxies of stars. They're certainly here; besides Carreño, the first night gave glimpses of Paloma Herrera, Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel. On paper, the Sadler's Wells repertory is highly promising. Later programmes will include the great corps setpiece from La Bayadère, plus such signature works as Fancy Free. So why on earth did ABT open with Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante, a tutu ballet danced with tick-tock politeness?

The short answer is that this is a work ABT is proud of snatching from oblivion. Made in 1947 to Mozart music, but dropped in the 1950s, it was reconstructed for this company in 1983. It makes a dry, ponderous introduction to today's ABT. A few lovely moments suggest that more might be made of this ballet, but this performance doesn't come to life.

Mozart's solo violin and viola are represented by two ballerinas, playfully exchanging steps. The corps weave in and out, women circling each other as the lines cross. There are fast, distinctive touches, too - leggy kicks for the ballerinas, odd bent-double poses for the corps.

The dancing is strong but dull. The tidy, contained corps move as if they think the stage is too small, careful not to take up space. Balanchine created a faster, bolder kind of tutu dancing; those long-limbed kicks should come naturally. Here, they stand out jarringly against a primmer, more conventional style - which makes the ballet look conventional, too. In the ballerina roles, Michele Wiles and Veronika Part don't get inside the music. They're neat rather than blithe.

A clutch of gala numbers then followed. The White Swan pas de deux loses impact out of context, though Marcelo Gomes partnered Julie Kent tenderly. Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Suite looked a better bet, and Angel Corella was raffish in evening dress, while Misty Copeland moves with voluptuous ease, but the piece falls short. But it's never quite the fun that I thought it was going to be.

It took Carreño's Corsaire to bring the house down. He dances with a flourish, his jumps high and ardent. Xiomara Reyes has less dash; her fouettés are speedy, but you can see her working at it.

The evening ends with Tharp's In the Upper Room. To an insistent Philip Glass score, played on tape, the dancers appear from the mist, power their way through fast, athletic steps, and vanish again. Norma Kamali's costumes reflect the way Tharp cuts between modern dance and ballet, the dancers switching from striped pyjamas and sneakers to red leotards and pointe shoes.

Tharp's style is relentlessly quick and agile. Yet the performance loses momentum, though the dancers drive themselves onwards. For all the flash and vigour on show, In the Upper Room is long and it feels it.

This is an ensemble piece, but it's here that we finally see ABT as a company whose ranks are filled with star dancers. Ethan Stiefel, dancing with a look of delight, brings out a soft-shoe rhythm in these steps. Paloma Herrera is elegant and bold, moving very fast on the grandest scale. Gillian Murphy zips exuberantly through. There are splendid dancers here; I hope the week's later programmes make a better job of displaying them.

To 18 February (0870 737 7737; www.sadlerswells.com)

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