Jenny Gilbert: A chorus of vegetables

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The Independent Culture

One key event of the dance year threatened to pass off without comment. At least, no one saw fit to flag it up in advance. On paper, the Covent Garden performance of Romeo and Juliet on 7 April was a performance like any other, except that no Juliet of Sylvie Guillem's is ever quite like any Juliet she has given before, still less like a Juliet danced by anyone else. But her fans were on to something, and they worked it out for themselves: that, despite no word from the management, this was probably Guillem's last date with the Royal.

When plans for the present season were published, sure enough, her name was not on the list. Of course, the company insists, the door is still open to Guillem. We may yet see her again in Marguerite and Armand or A Month in the Country (my favourite, and - I'm guessing - the dancer's too, given the number of times I've seen her weep through her curtain calls). But whether or not she reappears during the 2007-08 season (by which time she will be 43), it's clear that an era has ended, and the storm of flowers that rained onto the stage that April night went some way to marking its significance. Because whatever anyone said about Guillem at the start of her 17-year relationship with the company - that she was wilful, calculating, chilly, too much the hyper-extended gymnast - by the end few would disagree that she created a new model for ballerinadom, one where sleek strength and dramatic subtlety are meshed with high intelligence.

An entire industry has been built on pointing ticket buyers to the right place at the right time, but a muddle over Russians didn't make the PR's job easy. There was, originally, to have been one Russian ballet company in London in late July. Instead, thanks to the bullishness of Valery Gergiev, there were two. If all had gone according to plan, the Royal Opera House would have hosted the Kirov, or Mariinsky as we're now supposed to call it. But Gergiev's determination to bring ballets exclusively by Shostakovich caused the promoters to take fright and pull out.

So it was that the Mariinsky showed a rum collection of Soviet-era curiosities at the Coliseum, while the Bolshoi hastily re-scheduled its dancers' holiday to plug the gap at Covent Garden. The ultimate irony was not just that the Moscow bunch had the bigger audience share. Of the six dazzling programmes it rustled up at short notice, the critical hit boasted high comedy, a chorus of marching vegetables, Trocks-style cross-dressing ... and a score by Shostakovich.

Company anniversaries supplied another of the year's dance themes, with the Royal turning 75 and Rambert hitting 80. Quite enough has been said and written of the new-old Sleeping Beauty, the Royal's third try at creating a version it can live with. More of a revelation, vis-à-vis English style, was its vivid revival of The Rake's Progress, a masterpiece in miniature from 1935. In case you were under the impression that ballet was stuck in a state of prim gentility in those days, its cast of whores, madmen, violent crooks and lascivious low-lifers put you right.

Rambert likewise dug deep into the bottom of its trunk, fêting its longevity with Lady Into Fox, another sexy little narrative from the Thirties. In this case the piece had to be almost entirely rebuilt from a few minutes' remnants on ancient celluloid. The result, bolstered by a terrific new score, gained coherence and conviction as it toured the country.

So much for history. What's been new in dance this year? Well, the second Place Prize was awarded to upcoming talent Nina Rajarani, whose spirited competition piece Quiet, Please transposed the highly rhythmic style of Bharatanatyam onto four businessmen in an office (catch it on tour in Spring 2007). Michael Clark repaid backers' faith in his grown-up comeback by completing Part Two of his trilogy of Stravinsky ballets. His Rite of Spring may not have had the shattering impact of the 1911 original, but it was stark, strange and properly discomfiting with its concentration-camp allusions. Meanwhile Wayne McGregor, now surely the most prolific choreographer in Britain, hit the creative jackpot with Chroma, his second main-stage commission from the Royal Ballet, but the first to persuade director Monica Mason that she had to handcuff this remarkable talent to her side.

Of the non-Western art forms exposed this year, the Kabuki at Sadler's Wells was the most striking, and came with the added celebrity thrill of the handsome Ebizo Ichikawa XI, who - back home - enjoys the fashion status of a Japanese David Beckham. With the aid of a hired gizmo that supplied a running commentary in the ear, we Kabuki virgins in the audience weren't totally at sea, able, with help, to relish the static sensuality of Ebizo's Wisteria Maiden, as well as its companion play, a lurid tale of incest, murder and grotesque facial disfiguration.

The other great world-dance event of the year involved flamenco and, during Sadler's Wells' annual Spanish fortnight, the obvious contender for the crown was Sara Baras, a stormtrooper in gaucho pants and purring heels. Even more memorable, though, was the show given later in the year by the guitarist Paco Peña and friends at the Peacock Theatre. This was an object lesson in living in the moment: unpredictable, creatively risky, the equivalent of grasping a live wire.

Jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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