Dance review: Raven Girl - Crack, flutter ... and a baby classic is hatched

The Royal Ballet's new fledgling may well grow to rival that famous swan, but a tribute to 'Rite of Spring' doesn't take off

Keep ploughing the same furrow. That's what artists tend do in a crowded field, and what our two best-known dance-makers, Wayne McGregor and Akram Khan, have been doing in different ways for well over a decade. Last week, though, both broke new ground that, in one case at least, proved surprisingly fertile.

Wayne McGregor wasn't anyone's idea of a ballet man until he was appointed the Royal Ballet's choreographer in residence in 2007. Before then and since, his work has been abstract, spiky, and verging on dysmorphic. His interest lay in brain science, not fairy stories: in the snap of synapses and the speed with which such messages are relayed to a hyper-flexible body. Now he's swerved down another path. Raven Girl may nod to dance history – avian precedents such as Swan Lake, The Firebird and Merce Cunningham's Beach Birds. It may also have a prince, a transformation, and a narrative arc that, almost literally, achieves take-off. But in McGregor's hands its tropes feel vitally fresh.

The gist of the story is spelled out at the start, in Gothic type and with amusing perfunctoriness, on a scrim. "Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven." Don't ask why or how: fairy tales defy such logistical snags. Edward Watson makes a sharply melancholy Postman, forever walking, or cycling, in circles. Delivering a letter to a far-flung address, he finds a nestling fallen from a raven's nest, takes it home, cares for it fondly, and lo: "Some time passes and they have an egg."

The book on which the ballet is based is byAudrey Niffenegger, best known for The Time Traveller's Wife, but also a writer of short graphic novels. Her sombre drawings are incorporated into both Vicki Mortimer's picture-book stage sets and Ravi Deepres's ravishing film overlays. One moment these are filling the sky with drifting pearly clouds, the next with whorls of birds.

Sarah Lamb is the half-breed hatchling: human in appearance, but yearning to fly. At university (naturally) she studies evolutionary biology (here McGregor is closer to his home ground), and persuades the Doctor (a manic Thiago Soares) to perform an operation that will remove her arms and give her wings. Glimmering X-ray images thrillingly show the likeness between the structure of a human arm and hand, and the intricate pin-bones of a wing.

Alas, the moment Raven Girl gets her wings, prompting a heady balletic impression of swooping flight, is the point at which McGregor's tale starts to unravel. Dastardly interventions from a disgruntled boyfriend and the horrified parents prompt too many questions, and Eric Underwood's Raven Prince is ill defined. Is he a man-raven, or a raven-raven? We need to know.

Yet for all its flaws, which can be tweaked, McGregor has achieved something rare: daring in its simplicity, yet deliciously layered. Gabriel Yared's score brims with surprises, the chugga-chug of a postal sorting office and the rhythmic flap of wings slipping into driving orchestral textures that surge in Wagnerian waves. Paired with the clean, white symmetries of Balanchine's Symphony in C, it makes for a nicely balanced evening. Raven Girl's evolution, I predict, is just beginning.

Akram Khan's contribution to the Rite of Spring centenary, on the other hand, is a non-starter. Charged by Sadler's Wells to choreograph a response to Igor Stravinsky's game-changing 1913 score, Khan opted to commission completely new music from not one but three composers, and put himself In the Mind of Igor, hence the titular acronym iTMOi (Sadler's Wells, London **). Pretentious, presumptuous, or both?

But on the evidence, Khan is kidding himself. His ensemble piece – he doesn't appear personally – isn't about Stravinsky's processes at all, bar a reference to the stabbing asymmetric rhythms in Rite. It's an attempt to match its shock value. And on this level, iTMOi meagrely succeeds.

An opening rant from a revivalist preacher cues a ritualised, chaotic yet desperately slow enactment of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Yes, a human sacrifice again ... but it's there that any resonance with Rite ends.

As ever, Khan's dancers move with a wild and thrashing energy, sometimes impressively in sync. And tiny Ching-Ying Chien, as the Isaac figure, does almost dance herself to death. But the scenario is bewildering to the point of bathos. The Butoh-slow woman in a white crinoline baring one breast may have been God, but I'm only guessing, and the man crawling around with horns on his head just looked silly.

Only a riot in the stalls could have made this evening memorable.

Royal Ballet double bill, to 8 June

Critic's Choice

In 2011 they played to capacity crowds in the circus tent at Glastonbury. Last year they were part of the Piccadilly Circus Circus. Now, Pirates of the Carabina, a company of daredevil aerialists, stunt artists, dancers and musicians aged from 19 to 67, have brought their show FLOWN to Udderbelly, the upturned purple cow on London's South Bank. Opening today, it runs till 22 June, before heading off to Glastonbury again, then Edinburgh.

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