Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

The splendid designs are by E McKnight Kauffer, an American artist best known for his bold London Transport posters. His backcloth is striped in the colours of the spectrum, splintered by jagged lines and shapes. There's more geometry in the costumes, quartered body tights with capes, skirts, elaborate chess-piece headdresses. The use of colour is superb, with contrasting and closely-matched tones - black against grey and silver, crimson with flame orange. Paul Murphy conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a taut account of Arthur Bliss's atmospheric, theatrical score.

De Valois's choreography is emphatic, clearly worked out, and strongly characterised. There are horsey jumps for the Knights, stomping moves for the Castles. The Black Queen has stabbing pointe-work, triumphant poses on one knee, and a voluptuous show of submission to disarm the Red Knight.

The other two ballets were both made for this company in the 1950s. Together, this should be a well-balanced triple bill - a light first ballet, the drama of Checkmate and a frothy finale - but the framing dances work less well. Kenneth MacMillan's 1956 Solitaire is a whimsically sweet set of dances to music by Malcolm Arnold. Subtitled "a kind of game for one", it shows a single girl dancing with a series of companions. MacMillan's choreography refers to children's games, with follow-my-leader and playful footwork, feet flexed or tapped together.

The Lady and the Fool, made by John Cranko in 1954, sounds like a wonderful ballet. The music, arranged by Charles Mackerras from several Verdi operas, is brilliantly lively, and Murphy conducts a crisp, exuberant performance. Cranko's ballet is a sentimental romance: a glamorous beauty, La Capricciosa, turns down her wealthy suitors and falls in love with a clown. The company dance well, but they don't always hit the balance between comedy and wistfulness.

Touring (www.brb.org.uk)

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