Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill, Hippodrome, Birmingham

Save the last dance for me
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The Independent Culture

Birmingham Royal Ballet's (BRB) latest triple bill has some good ideas. There's a new commission, two interesting revivals and some fine conducting, but it's not until the last work that the programme gels.

BRB has a tradition of encouraging new work. The current Director's Appeal, launched by David Bintley to fill a funding shortfall, calls for money for new ballets. The latest premiere, Oliver Hindle's The Four Seasons, builds on an earlier choreographic project.

In 1998, four BRB dancers worked on Vivaldi's score, taking a season each. Hindle's "Summer" was the most praised, and he has come back to do the other three. He casts the dancers as athletes in seasonal sports: tennis; swimming; gymnastics; skating. Steps are tidily classical, with sporting moves thrown in. There are plenty of solo roles, tailored to show off the dancers.

The audience giggles as the curtain goes up on a group of dancers hopping from side to side - tennis players waiting for an opponent's ball. But those rackets and sports clothes underline an aimlessness in Hindle's choreography.

His dancers don't have the purpose of athletes: they're just decorating this very familiar score. Each Season follows a conventional pattern, with jumps in the fast bits and a duet for each slow movement. The skating duet works best: clean lines and a Torvill and Dean opening, elegantly danced by Molly Smolen and Tiit Helimets.

The Birmingham dancers respond to the drama of Balanchine's Prodigal Son. There are energetic performances from the Prodigal's servants and his creepy Drinking Companions. But the central scenes are lightweight.

Balanchine's Prodigal is ensnared by a Siren, who leads him into an icily erotic duet. Asta Bazeviciúte's Siren lacks authority. The gestures aren't weighted, and her line isn't bold enough for those astonishing steps. Her Prodigal, Iain Mackay, needs more rebellion; a more overwhelming response to the Siren's temptations. He's better in the exhausted journey home. His youth, and his long limbs, give him an air of vulnerability. Paul Murphy conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a fierce account of Prokofiev's score.

Audience and dancers seemed happiest with Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room. This 1986 ballet is set to a taped score by Philip Glass. Chugging minimalist patterns are broken up with romantic swoops and, in the last movement, some bombastic vocal lines. The dancing has plenty of energy; aggressive without sulks. The company looks lively and athletic.

Jennifer Tipton lights the stage with a series of hazy spotlights; layers of glowing light. The dancers are set in contrasting groups. Two women lope through, dressed in striped pyjamas and sneakers. Tharp keeps dancers in constant motion. They run lightly on the spot, or burst into kicks and runs. They open and close the piece, bringing down the curtain with a clenched-fist gesture.

A second pair, in red with scarlet socks and pointe shoes, break into furious kicking dances; rushing as fast as they can go. The pointe shoes are another sharp edge: this footwork looks brittle after the soft-shoe shuffles. Men run and spin across the stage, repeating patterns. The dancing is punchy and bright. Carol-Anne Millar is especially good - pugnacious and sharp.

Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) 21 & 22 March

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