English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

A carpet sweeper: the perfect partner
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The Independent Culture

On the face of it, English National Ballet's latest game plan isn't very remarkable. Raise the company's artistic profile. Bring on British dance-making talent. Balance company finances by securing a popular hit. The difference between ENB and all the other touring outfits trying to do those things is that English National Ballet, under its wise new director Matz Skoog, seems to be on target with all three. What's more, its new mixed bill, including a bold commission from Michael Corder, scores the hat trick in one night.

Corder's Melody on the Move, a suite of eight dances performed to BBC Home Service tunes of the 1930s to Fifties, looks set to be pleasing crowds for as long as ENB needs to please them. Where other recent attempts to plough the light music furrow have been mired in nostalgia (Pacific Ballet Northwest's Swing Time was the worst), Corder's British medley exudes a breezy detachment.

Which isn't to say there's anything original in his treatment. All the HP Sauce stereotypes are here - brolly-wielding city gents, Noel and Gertie-style couples, sexy shorthand secretaries, even a chirpy milkman. But Corder's deft hand with comedy turns many into jokes on themselves.

He is no great inventor of steps, but give him a few props and he's away. I loved the housewives in pinny tutus hitching rides on carpet sweepers, and the saucy solo with a feather duster that gives Simone Young the best role of her life. Just as engaging is the mini-drama set in a typing pool, where three secretaries compete to catch the caddish boss's eye. Neat, sharp, pristinely timed, the jokes triggered belly laughs at Sadler's Wells, and it's not often ballet does that.

Mark Bailey's totemic set design - a giant Bakelite wireless set whose dial divides like elevator doors - endorses the streamlined feel. ENB's orchestra, under Martin West, laps up every silly triangle moment in scores such as "Peanut Polka" and "Knightsbridge March". The one disappointment is Corder's lack of inventive spark in the non-comic numbers. A quartet for two garden-party couples fails dismally to offset the repetitiveness of the music (which, after all, doesn't bear too close attention). And the intended romantic highlight, a standard-issue duet for the brilliant Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, misses a major opportunity to exploit the pair's technique.

Mark Morris's Drink To Me Only had opened the programme, showing just what intricate marvels can be conjured from classroom steps by a neo-classical master. A few easy-to-spot motifs guide the eye through Virgin Thomson's score - 13 gem-bright piano studies, played live on stage. Perhaps it was the effect of summer heat, perhaps it was my perception that pianist Jonathan Still wasn't quite on top of the job, but to me the piece looked less cool and diamond-bright than it had when the company tackled it last year.

When the men make their entrance each carrying a reclining girl aloft, then lug her about like some rigid shop dummy, there ought to be ripples of laughter. There was not. Only Erina Takahashi - whose pointwork could slice butter - and handsome Jan Erik Wikstrom brought the right airy attack to this clever ballet. By the end, though, the rest of the cast had rallied sufficiently to create an almost liturgical hush around the title tune. Americana at its un-hallowed best.

But if Morris's masterpiece loses out as an opener, Kenneth MacMillan's Rite of Spring makes a finisher to cap all finishers. Watching from the circle, I was stunned anew by the graphic stage patterns - the millipede line of coloured bodies shading from desert terracotta through jungly green; the sea of synchronised swimmers. It seems to me that MacMillan's response to Stravinsky's score is not so much about atavistic rite and ritual as the terrible power of collective will and surrender of responsibility. As the 44-strong mob quivers in anticipation of the Chosen One's death, a part of you is up there with them, and trembles for mankind.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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