Batsheva Dance Co, Barbican, London<br></br>Igor Zelensky, Royal Albert Hall, London

Be careful - this could be catching
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Naharin's Virus is the title of the extraordinary piece of work that arrived from Israel as part of the BITE season last week. Ohad Naharin, of Batsheva Dance Company, is the name of its choreographer, and a virus, as we know, is something nasty you catch. Does this tell us that the author of the strange, fierce, un-beautiful activity on the Barbican stage was suffering during the creative process? No, the virus surely is the essence of the piece itself, spreading its potent message like droplets in a sneeze. Messages are clumsy things, though, and there is nothing so obvious here. Even symbolism is scant. There's a graffitied wall, suggesting the one Ariel Sharon is proposing for the Left Bank. And there's a cross-shaped windsock which, with a broken stream of air blowing through it, resembles a flickering human form - waving, crumpling, then dancing to vigorous life again.

There are 16 real dancers, too, their individuality erased by beige Lycra, but each breaking ranks at random moments to make his or her stamp on a few seconds of real time. These are angry, stuttering, madman solos, comic or ludicrous in their force, but unarguably unique. You never see the same move twice. As a group, the dancers are automatons - sometimes serenely swaying and crooning old Arabic work songs, more often stooped, grotesque and twitchy. At one point they stand stock still for several minutes, then make a single irritable adjustment to their stance. Performed as one body, it's electric.

The random choreography and its pronounced lack of context ought to make it unwatchable, but the piece cunningly hitches a ride on a cult Sixties text which adds an intriguing layer. Peter Handke's play Offending the Audience famously turned the spectator's very presence into the main issue of the play. In the extracts used by Naharin, a dull male voice delivers a stream of observations about theatrical conventions and their limitations, from the obvious ("you are sitting in rows") to the profound ("we cannot represent the last exhalation that is happening now, and now, and now...).

The effect of Handke's riddling text is to banish expectation of narrative or symbolism and make us receptive to the finely calibrated sensations offered by the movement. What's it all about? I still can't say, though I know shared humanity comes into it somewhere. And our culpability as distant observers of world conflict. The Arab-Israeli connection is never overtly made. But what comes through is what the theatre director Peter Brook called "a trace deeper than imagery". This is the residue that works its way into the blood, and it's what makes Naharin's Virus so catching.

It was easier to read Monday's show at the Royal Albert Hall. Igor Zelensky, ballet's blond, six-foot-two-inches mighty handful, was out to reclaim his position among the world's top five after a back injury that had laid him out for a year and a half. That's a long time in ballet, and Zelensky, now 34, knows he needs to pitch his game high if he is to squeeze in a few more years dancing at his former level.

Booking the Albert Hall for a one-night stand might seem laudably ambitious but was possibly barmy. It's a poor venue for ballet, and wedging a temporary platform into the front of the arena only partly helped the staging problems, leaving half the expensive ticket holders a mile from the action, the rest looking up the dancers' bottoms.

From the start, Kingdom of the Shades was compromised by the absence of a ramp. Properly, the 32 ghostly bayadères should descend in a snaking, moonlit line. Instead, the corps entered through the wrestlers' entrance, the ground-level arrangement partly obscuring some pretty disgraceful wobbles. We had been promised the corps of the Kirov, but got the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg. Maladroit more like, though the dreamy Russian training was there in the curves of their backs.

The prospect changed the minute Ulyana Lopatkina appeared - the first of the evening's stellar ballerinas. Exquisitely alert to classical nuance, from the grand scoop of her neck to every stirring of her ribbon-supple limbs, the Kirov principal, at only 30, has refined her art almost to an abstraction. The audience knew they were seeing something special - not even the most brazen camera-user dared to point and flash. And Zelensky responded in kind by pulling out a ricochet of fancy leaps so high, so fast and apparently without effort that the only response left was disbelief. Balanchine's Apollo was alas, another favourite ballet that found its key symmetries warped by the staging. It was saved by Maria Kowroski, New York's plushly upholstered Balanchine stylist who made her pert fellow muses look like students. The role of Apollo doesn't show Zelensky at his best, though. As an actor, he's always been wooden, but here he's marmoreal. The poses are terrific, but they want wit.

Scheherazade was the surprise hit of the evening, thanks to the Russian Orchestra of London's glorious account of the Rimsky-Korsakov, and the leading couple's heroic determination to make this tacky little harem orgy into something rich and strange. Zelensky's hormone-fuelled Golden Slave pounced after Svetlana Zakharova's snaky Zobeide like a hungry lion. Here was the passion we'd been waiting for. That, and a shipload of spangled bras.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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