What is it that sells out a season months before it opens? In the case of Darcey Bussell's freelance gig with Igor Zelensky it might have been something like panic. Dismayed by Bussell's reduced presence at Covent Garden, still more by hints that she may quit for good next year, fans of Britain's best-loved ballerina didn't hesitate to book ahead for the thin, ill-conceived programme that opened on Tuesday night. Expecting to be dazzled by two of the dance world's brightest lights, what they got was low-watt energy-saving.
Bussell has been working flat out at the Royal Ballet these past weeks, but Sadler's Wells patrons shouldn't have to make allowances for that. Had they known their £35 was buying seven minutes of Bussell, one subdued solo from Zelensky, and a scant 18 minutes of them together, they may have not have bothered. The padding comes courtesy of six dancers from the State Ballet of Novosibirsk that Zelensky now directs - perfectly able dancing to perfectly forgettable choreography, and a fuzzy recording of Philip Glass.
Do Darcey and Igor get out much? Do they know that Sadler's Wells audiences expect live music? An orchestra was billed to play the Handel for Zelensky's solo, but he decided at the 11th hour to cancel it, for reasons undisclosed. Yes, dancers tend to get attached to certain recordings, and they're usually rotten ones, but shouldn't live performance be properly live when possible? The Musicians' Union used to be adamant about this.
The one new work on the programme - Kiss, by Alastair Marriott - has some merit, though its book-ending shots of Bussell's back view are misjudged, the lighting giving her cellulite thighs. In truth that sculptural, open-air physique is still her best asset, and it was clever of Marriott to cast it in poses drawn from Rodin (the originals being on view just across town). Bussell's one-time Royal stable-mate William Trevitt gives support, and looks as rugged as any man might recreating The Thinker in pale mauve Lycra.
Zelensky was dressed like a burglar on a chilly night for his solo, a longish trawl through floor-bound turns devised by fellow Russian Alla Sigalova. We were obviously meant to read the clenched fists and rigid arms as a spirit in torment, but the dancer conveyed only a bad mood, becoming grumpier through a series of lighting glitches.
On a technical level at least, things look up in Le Jeune homme et la mort, the celebrated 1946 two-hander by Roland Petit to a scenario by Jean Cocteau, set in a Paris garret. But Zelensky is no Nureyev, still less a Jean Babilée, the work's original suicidal anti-hero. The Russian vaults over the furniture with fine abandon, a blond hunk in bare chest and frayed jeans, but again, spiritual torture evades him. His is the despair of a man who has run out of Gauloises.
Similarly, Bussell's femme fatale belongs in a fashion shoot, and even the moment when she rubs her foot in her victim's groin lacks sadism. It's a performance that leaves you wondering whether dancers should ever be allowed to choose their own repertory.
The other returns-only season running in the capital springs more pleasant surprises. Despite his guru status abroad, Korean director Oh Tae-Suk is barely known in Britain, so it can only be his choice of Romeo and Juliet that sold out the Barbican Pit. But this is no R&J you have ever imagined. Cast as comedy, it features wild slapstick, song and dance, and infectious quantities of grinning. Playing fast and loose with Shakespeare's text, characters deliver their lines to the audience rather than each other - appealing once you get used to it. Despite some dodgy translation of subtitles (Romeo's "I will cut the maidenhead of that girl tonight!" caused unintended mirth), this martial arts-flavoured contraction of the play contains scenes of poetic justness such as will lodge in your brain forever. The bedroom scene is childish rough and tumble under a room-size sheet. The game ends with Romeo cocooned in fabric, bound and gagged by fate. As you laugh, tragedy tightens its grip.
Romeo and Juliet (0845 120 7500) to SatReuse content