Back to basics. The two best ballets made for English companies this year have both been simply dancing to music. "Simply'', I say, but there is nothing simple about sustaining real interest that way, and it is quite an achievement for Christopher Hampson that his new Double Concerto for English National Ballet rivals the more experienced David Bintley's Seasons for Birmingham Royal Ballet as the balletic highlight of 2001.
The concerto in question is Poulenc's for two pianos and orchestra, written in 1932, a fine time for music when jazz was enlivening traditional forms. This example is full of rhythms that invite dancing, and full, also, of sudden changes of tempo, volume, tone and melody: this can sometimes be startling, but always convincing. Hampson's choreography responds to all this in a wholehearted but subtle way. None of that step-for-note arrangement that is dismissively nicknamed "Mickey-Mousing", and yet the dancing always corresponds to the score. In Balanchine's words, you see the music and hear the dance.
The other remarkable thing about Double Concerto is the ambitious scale of it. Apart from Christopher Wheeldon, who is exceptional in that as in other ways, British choreographers since Cranko and Peter Darrell haven't appeared interested in making dances for the corps de ballet (it is a serious weakness, for instance, in most of Kenneth MacMillan's works).
The earlier pieces Hampson made for ENB were, of necessity, on a fairly small scale to suit the company's touring needs, but this time he has really let himself go. The cast comprises two principals, six soloists, a group of half-soloists and an ensemble: at one time I spotted three dozen dancers on stage together.
And he makes them all dance flat out. Two male soloists, for instance, make one entry after another, hurtling around or across the stage in fast leaps, turns and beats: the effect is quite dazzling. The group dances are pretty demanding, too, in steps, complexity and often speed, but not least when they become, for a while, almost still to a sustained quiet passage in the music.
With all this competition, the principals have to be good to hold their end up. There are plenty of virtuoso steps but there is also much emphasis on a swaggering jazziness of posture or walk. Except for one duet that is full of distinctively off-balance movement, they tend to perform solos. I saw two casts, matinee and evening, out of three who have appeared so far. Jan-Erik Wikström is a splendid new recruit from Sweden partnering the lively and gifted Sarah McIlroy; their alternates were the differently, but no less gifted Vlidaslav Bubnov and Monica Perego.
The ballet's look is enhanced by simple but handsome black, grey and white costumes and a striking decor of shiny metal rods that move: Gary Harris is the designer. And the company showed lots of young talent coming on well in this and the programme's other two works, both by Balanchine. A wholly enjoyable show.
The next performances of 'Double Concerto' are at the London Coliseum (020-7632 8300) 14-16 JanReuse content