Danses Concertantes, Sadler's Wells, London

Erotic? The things you can do with Chinese silk...
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The Independent Culture

The chances of New York City Ballet making a London visit being just about nil, ballet fans are normally queuing down the street when its unofficial offshoot, now called Danses Concertantes, brings over a handful of the company's hottest stars and interesting small-scale rep.

The chances of New York City Ballet making a London visit being just about nil, ballet fans are normally queuing down the street when its unofficial offshoot, now called Danses Concertantes, brings over a handful of the company's hottest stars and interesting small-scale rep.

Last week was the chamber group's fourth season, but it seems folk had already spent their dance allowance on other pleasures - probably San Francisco Ballet. What's more, the New Yorkers were offering unknown fare: an obscure piece of Balanchine, plus three new works of uncertain appeal. Naturally the theatre was decently full. But it was suspiciously full of 19-year-olds with very small bottoms and very long necks. The place was papered to the rafters with dance students.

As mixed bills go, this was very mixed. But it showcased some unforgettable dancers and at least one work to write home about. The first revelation was the Balanchine. Of all his 400-plus ballets, Variations pour une porte et un soupir, a 1974 duet for a creaky door and a human sigh, must be the weirdest. Set to a score by Pierre Henry, which pits respiratory noises against the opening and closing of an un-oiled door, it features two creatures that would look more at home on the set of Antz than your regular ballet stage.

The mesmerising Maria Kowroski plays a leggy arachnid to Tom Gold's love-lorn bug. As she poses and preens and stamps her toe-blocks imperiously, he scampers and quivers and launches crazy dives across airspace to land on his stomach. While he sports green hair and skin the texture of a caterpillar, she disports herself in an expansive black cape, a sea of China silk so vast it fills the stage. As the fabric pleats and folds in on itself, expands into dark enveloping caverns, swallowing all it meets with a sucking, billowy motion, it gradually dawns on you that this is none other than a giant female orifice. While everyone knows the choreographer was obsessed by women (he married four of his ballerinas and was enamoured of many more), the graphic nature of this dark little study verges on outrageous. Forget The Vagina Monologues, Balanchine got there first.

A more temperate exploration of eroticism comes in Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy, the latest of his signature pieces made for stars Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto - she a milk-white wisp of tensile strength, he a pillar of muscular brown velvet (half Navajo Indian, half Puerto Rican). And if that sounds like the blurb on a box of Terry's All Gold, so be it, because this couple are quite delicious. The numinous dialogue between violin and piano in Arvo Pärt's Fratres provides the spur for a fiercely tender conversation between bodies. Apart, each dancer's movements mimic the motions of burgeoning nature: arms unfurling in the manner of leaves and flowers. Once they touch, Whelan and Soto's forms seem to merge into a single life force. Certain images sing out: he supporting her body inches from the ground like an offering on a tray, she reclining on thin air, held between his knees. As violin and piano finally commune in a slow chorale, the dance resolves into a kind of erotic prayer. It took the full 20 minutes of interval for my pulse to quieten down.

Which only made the rest of the programme more dismal. Benjamin Millepied's essay Circular Motion was different but dull. Peter Martins' 14-strong Hallelujah Junction went at a lively lick but sprang no surprises, bar the nimble antics of the same, aptly named Millepied, also organiser of this show. What it needed was a crowd-pleaser - something San Francisco does so well. For me, though, those two revelations were worth sitting through a score of duds.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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