Benois de la Danse Gala, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

The Benois de la Danse is billed as the ballet Oscars, but who are they kidding? At this gala, Vladimir Malakhov finally got round to collecting his best dancer award from 1998. It doesn't suggest much respect.

The award is named after the great Russian designer Alexander Benois. Yuri Grigorovich, the former Bolshoi director, is its guiding spirit. Its other proceedings remain mysterious. Who chooses this stuff? What were the nominations? Peter Ustinov, Benois's great-nephew, was billed as host but withdrew due to illness. Nobody explained anything in his absence, not even this year's winners.

This gala reflected the Benois jury's peculiar choices over 12 years of the awards, padded out with dubious star turns. David Dawson's The Grey Area won best choreography in 2003. It is watered-down Forsythe: electronic hums and a gaunt girl in cellophane tugged into extreme positions. Surely the jury saw something better last year?

Irek Mukhamedov's solo was a lump of effortful whimsy, but at least he's a past winner. Anastasia Volochkova seems just to have muscled her way in. Her Esmeralda number is truly rotten dancing: balances wobble, the hips are wrenched out of line as soon as she lifts a leg, and she can't hit her tambourine on the beat. Yet, in this company, Volochkova looks almost wholesome. She's ballet as it falls off the end of the pier: tat, but without the grim pretensions of the evening's newer choreography.

Gregor Seyffert won his best dancer prize with his father Dietmar's ballet Clown of God. It's an insane Nijinsky dance, and a performance of staggering narcissism. Seyffert junior, in whiteface make-up, climbs out of the audience and strips to a nasty pair of underpants. Both Seyfferts assume that madness, not dancing, was the heart of Nijinsky's genius. Blinking tragically into a spotlight is a lot easier than addressing style and technique.

Nijinsky was misremembered again in a cheap version of Le Spectre de la Rose: no set, cut-down steps and skimped costumes. Vladimir Malakhov jumps freely and lands lightly, but his frozen upper body is all wrong for this. He creaks where he should sway.

Elisabeth Platel won her Benois with John Neumeier's Sylvia, but this excerpt showed little of her ballerina quality. Her elegant line was broken up in clumsy steps, her authority wasted on a meandering dance.

That left Ulyana Lopatkina's "Dying Swan" as the sole highlight. Her footwork is soft and strong, and she shapes the role with authority. It was not ideal, but she took the stage like a real ballerina, and a wilting audience was revived.

But then camePicture This!, choreographed by Mukhamedov, with Royal Ballet School students and a hideous Emerson, Lake and Palmer arrangement of Mussorgsky. The school should have known better than to lend its students to this nonsense. But then, everyone connected with this gala should have known better.