Dance: Royal Ballet Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London

Ballet, Attenborough style
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The Independent Culture

Not often, perhaps never, has the Royal Opera House seemed such a hot place to be on a Friday night. The management, in a bid to bring in new audiences, had set a drastic cap on seat prices. The place was heaving, the mood combustible. Young fans of the Detroit garage band the White Stripes, whose music was to feature in a new ballet by Wayne McGregor, jostled with Aquascutum types for whom the White Stripes could have been a brand of toothpaste. John Pawson - smart architect of choice for kitchens and cathedrals - was to make his stage design debut. Billed also was large-scale orchestral Michael Nyman - something about a high-speed train.

A mixed programme containing one world premiere is generally considered a gamble. With two the Royal was going for broke. Yet within seconds of McGregor's Chroma it was clear the company had a winner, in what I swear must be the most electrifying opening of any ballet ever. The curtain rises on a dazzling white light-box, while from the pit a vertiginous blast of Bond-movie brass pins you to your seat. Out of the void step creatures that scarcely fit the human mould: sockets twist, spines duck and curve, heads butt or shudder. No movement is familiar, and familiar dancers are transformed: Edward Watson is a wriggle of slippery sinew, Sarah Lamb practically invertebrate. In quiet moments you play in your head an Attenborough commentary: "and here we have ... a rare sighting ... of the Cojocaru monkey in its secret mating display", as the tiny principal dancer defies all skeletal logic, flicking her torso through sudden S-bends, legs forked at 200 degrees.

A prolific dance-maker, Wayne McGregor is also one of the dance world's thinkers. He's picked the brains of neuroscientists at Cambridge. He talks about "cognitive mapping". But none of his past forays has achieved the dramatic cogency of this. While never losing sight of its synaptic line of enquiry, Chroma swings confidently from hard to soft, from brazen to intimate, closing in on a pas de deux for Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli so serene it's a dream, and climaxing in a party spirit that almost lifts the roof. In truth the three White Stripes tracks that form the basis of half the score can't take much of the credit. It's Joby Talbot's zingy orchestrations and original writing that set the agenda, played with gusto by the 25-piece band under Richard Bernas.

A more qualified success met the other new work, Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: danse à grande vitesse, named after the TGV, the French high-speed train whose inaugural run from Lille in 1993 was feted in Michael Nyman's MGV: musique à grande vitesse. Wheeldon was taking a risk in choosing a Nyman score: all that repetitive chugging and nowhere to go. But he obviously liked the notion of basing a ballet on modern travel and the sense that, in the air or in a tunnel, time and place are momentarily cancelled.

The set, by Jean Marc Puissant, is a striking assembly of wave-shaped metal resembling the body of a plane or a train. I don't think we're meant to think it had crashed, but as dancers exited gingerly between its buckled sections I had sinking visions of Hertford and Clapham Junction. Whatever, Wheeldon attacks his theme with imagination, making a vast cast seem even bigger by partly obscuring half the corps, so you imagine crowds more. But this is scatter-shot choreography: too many ideas too rarely followed up. There are lively cart-wheeling references to propellers, Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming, and a lot of rushing about.

Wheeldon counters the chugga-chugga of Nyman's vast crescendo by turning his ballerinas into slowly rotating turbines, and gives Darcey Bussell a stunning horizontal entry held high and almost motionless by a staunch Gary Avis. Costumes are nattily based on guards' livery (if you can imagine an SNCF ticket-collector in a basque), but a ballet has to be more than a bag of clever-cuts allusions. DGV is fun, it's grandly conceived, but doesn't quite hang together.

The masterclass in form comes, as it so often does, from George Balanchine, in Four Temperaments, a work that looks as fresh, sinister and sexy as it must have done in 1946. Cindy Jourdain is properly arch in the dressage-pony opening. The goose-stepping girls in swimsuits make the blood freeze. Vyacheslav Samodurov is impressively dark in the Melancholic solo, Edward Watson superbly mocking as Phlegmatic. Paul Hindemith's acid final fugue whirls them and us to our doom, allowing just a chink of hope in a late major-key twist. Magnificent.

Jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

* Royal Opera House (0207 304 4000), Monday and Wednesday.

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