English National Ballet, Corn Exchange, London/New Victoria Theatre, Woking

A high-wire balancing act
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The Independent Culture

Forced to tour: all our subsidised ballet companies except one are required to show their work in the regions, but English National Ballet makes a special virtue of necessity. Its spring season under the punning title Tour de Force divides the company for two simultaneous expeditions, letting it show more of the dancers in new roles and a wider selection of repertoire.

This year's two concurrent programmes are particularly successful. Each of them starts with a light, swift-moving piece by a past master: Balanchine's Square Dance in one case, the celebratory dances from Bournonville's Napoli in the other. To close each show there is a classic tutu number by Petipa, the famous showpieces from Raymonda and Paquita respectively. And in between, both programmes have a new work. That's two world premieres at the same time (exactly twice as many as the Royal Ballet is managing all year), and both of them warmly received by audiences.

You would expect enthusiasm for Manoeuvre, which I saw at Woking. Patrick Lewis, a former ENB dancer turned freelance choreographer, had the bright idea of taking eight male dancers and setting them as many showy sequences as he could fit into 22 minutes. Besides all the usual virtuoso steps he includes cartwheels, somersaults, handstands, shoulder balances, even (not quite spectacular enough) rope climbing. It is all done with verve, brilliance and good humour by a cast headed by Jan-Erik Wikstrom and Yat-Sen Chang.

Personally, I found that the movement eventually grew a little too fidgety, and Philip Feeney's cheerful music for chamber orchestra, featuring trumpet and piano, grew too persistently agitated. A touch of pruning could substantially strengthen the effect. Some second thoughts on Antony McDonald's unflattering costumes wouldn't hurt, either. Manoeuvre is successful enough to be worth a little more trouble.

Cathy Marston's creation for the other programme is totally different: a quiet exploration of feelings among three couples – or rather, one couple seen from three aspects, since she reveals that her inspiration was TS Eliot's "The Waste Land" and the poet's relationship with his wife Viv. But you don't need to know a thing about the poem or the people: the choreography converts private emotions into universal concerns. As the ballet's title, Facing Viv, indicates, the female side takes precedence, but the balance is fair.

There are some spectacular movements too, but the general tone is subdued. They wear what gives the illusion of everyday clothes and seem to be seeking some kind of peace out of the mixed "memory and desire" that Eliot wrote of. The whole cast catches the spirit perfectly; they are Cindy Jourdain, Simone Clarke and Sarah McIlroy with Gary Avis, Trevor Schoonraad and Jesus Pastor.

John Adams's music is not easy listening but its intensity supports the action beautifully. The surprising thing, in fact, is that so serious, unusual and, one might have thought, difficult a ballet as Facing Viv was so much enjoyed by an audience who can hardly have known what to expect. This is a work that deserves to be seen much more widely.

Touring till 4 May

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