For his second appearance at the Manchester International Festival, Carlos Acosta returned to neighbouring Salford with a quartet of dancers. Four short ballets are linked by the concept of the male muse, including Acosta's debut in Jerome Robbins' dazzling A Suite of Dances.
The evening began, however, with a different Robbins piece, the much earlier pas de deux, Afternoon of a Faun, to Debussy's beautifully poised score. In a light rehearsal room, the audience is the fourth wall, a mirror in which Faun and Nymph – reinterpreted here as two shyly amorous dancers – examine their images while engaging in dreamy intimate contact. Acosta, with white-clad ankles and feet giving him the look of a woodland genie, looked as nakedly fixated with his own physical beauty as with that of the beguiling Begona Cao.
After the tentative kiss, as she bourées off-stage and he returns to supine languor, the heat of this absorbing encounter hangs in the air. The other Robbins ballet could scarcely have been more different, A Suite of Dances, created as a showcase for Baryshnikov. Acosta inhabits the role so naturally he could have been improvising. Alongside him on stage, he has a remarkably pliant partner in Natalie Clein, giving exquisitely characterful voice to four movements – from dark to comic, sensual to poignant – drawn from Bach's solo cello suites. In a string of seamless movements Acosta enacts the music's baroque gestures, investing the work with playfulness.
Its surprisingly generous sponsorship package at least gave Salford City Council the kudos of a compelling new commission from Adam Hougland set to Britten's airy Young Apollo. Anais Chalendard and Junor de Oliveira Souza explore the world of the god through what the choreographer describes as "a shimmering pas de deux that fluctuates between razor-like sharpness and fluid abandon". Precisely. In a magical framework, sometimes like mechanical dolls, the two dancers are responsive to the dynamic shading and rhythmic flexibility of Jonathan Scott's vividly ornate solo piano.
Completing a second pairing, Balanchine's oldest surviving ballet Apollo, created for the Ballets Russes, is a neo-classical showcase for the muses of mime, poetry and, most touching of all in her delicate pas de deux with Acosta's god-like Apollo, Terpsichore, muse of dance and song. Daria Klimentova joined Chalendard and Cao in Stravinsky's Ballet Blanc, their graceful bending and blending of limbs complementing the calm and clarity of the score.
Nothing in the sensitive playing of the BBC Philharmonic, under André de Ridder, felt forced or contrived. However the inclusion of Philip Glass's Company for strings, mistitled Overture in the programme, was a pointless musical interlude at best baffling, at worst boring, to an audience hungry for Acosta and dance.
Sadler's Wells, London 1-5 December (0844 412 4300)