Dutch National Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London
Yippeee!!, Sadler's Wells, London
Dance Umbrella, Sadler's Wells, London

Every national ballet company wants to look distinctive, and for those with a long history that's not hard to achieve. Any muggins could spot the difference between, say, the Kirov and the Royal Danish, were they ever to perform side by side. But where does that leave Dutch National Ballet, whose existence dates only to 1961 and whose membership spans 27 nationalities?

It leaves them looking very good indeed, because what it lacks in native accent it makes up in technical strength. What's more, picking dance-athletes it really wants from around the world rather than native graduates it might feel obliged to accept has resulted in a predominantly tall, broad-shouldered squad whose look couldn't be more cohesive if their ancestors had all been models for Van Dijk.

For this London visit - the first in five years - director Ted Brandsen brought works from the last four decades that hold their Dutchness up to the light. Rudi van Dantzig's Four Last Songs, set to Richard Strauss, is typical of Seventies ballet abstraction in presenting a headily impassioned world where nothing very obviously happens but it's a matter of life or death. A soloist billed as Angel gives a clue, and the magnificently saturnine Rubinald Rofino Pronk leaves no doubt that his embrace is the kind you don't wake up from. Four couples in turn respond to the shadings of the rich orchestral writing (the Royal Ballet Sinfonia on fine form, and American soprano Camellia Johnson stupendous) and eventually link arms with death in a comfortable gesture of acceptance.

Fine music-making also dominated the evening's premiere, the strongly classical Suite For Two by Krzysztof Pastor, one of the company's two home-grown choreographers. Cellist Quirine Viersen battled a dry acoustic to give a resounding account of Bach's second suite while the dancing pair sweetly, sometimes mischievously, acknowledged her presence on stage.

Hans Van Manen, now 73 and still prolific, is the company's real crown jewel, and his 2005 Frank Bridge Variations, set to the darkly exuberant Britten score, formed the backbone of the programme, showing dancer after splendid dancer's strength and form. With her cool presence, articulate torso and lean, long line, Igone de Jongh suggested a dancer in the Guillem mould.

But the real technical stretch was William Forsythe's 1991 The Second Detail, as a cast of 13 high-kicked and spun and pummelled their bodies in obedience to the clanging force of a Thom Willems score. There can be a nihilism about Forsythe at his most punishing. But this time the dancers were on top.

With a title like Yippeee!! there ought to be some fun to be had in the latest spectacle from Lea Anderson, veteran survivor of the late-Eighties' taste for kitsch. It turns out to be an over-long, over-wrought, rather academic, if undeniably kinky take on Busby Berkeley chorus routines of the 1930s. Anderson is hooked on cyclical patterns and multiples, and merges her interest in period song-and-dance films with scientific notions about viral infection and cloning. It's a fascinating idea on paper, but its exposition is tiresomely obscure. Not that there isn't plenty to look at. Women have beards, men wear heels. The live-generated electronic music by Steve Blake and his band is unremittingly ugly.

Thankfully that was not the sign-off of this year's Dance Umbrella, the 28-year-old annual festival that introduced contemporary dance to Britain. The final item was a gala dedicated to Val Bourne, its retiring founder-director. Such has been Bourne's longevity and reach that even a cursory scan of the audience revealed many more stars than were billed to perform. One or two acts were mystifying: a duet by Mark Morris for two men skipping in smocks left me unsure whether I was meant to laugh. But a Kim Brandstrup duet was darkly engrossing, a solo for extended thumbs by Trisha Brown was a minimalist delight, and a student skit by a 17-year-old Aletta Collins to Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" was both clever and funny. Martha Graham (aka New Yorker Richard Move) was the glamorous compere.


* 'Yippeee!!', Brighton Dome (01273 709709), Thur to Sat; Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333), 24 & 25 Nov

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