As opening gambit for Monica Mason's first autonomous season as Royal Ballet director, La Bayadère had struck me as a rum choice, wilfully low on novelty value. Its odd jumble of 19th-century Bollywood exoticism, rum-te-tum music and ludicrous plot - as re-packaged by Natalia Makarova in her 1989 version for the Royal - has already had some 70 outings at the Opera House. What was Ms Mason thinking of? Doubt hardened to dull conviction through the first act. Ludwig Minkus's music - before it gets stuck into jolly waltzes - is truly dire in the early scenes, which is where this production creaks most. Mud-smeared naked fakirs leap over a holy flame made of orange tissue paper fanned with a hair-dryer, the frantically mimed cloak-and-dagger dealings of principal characters leave the audience none the wiser, and there's a dearth of memorable dance steps, without which we may as well go home.
But then, as the Kirov's reconstruction of the original showed last summer, Bayadère was always a straggly patchwork of great and indifferent, and it seems Makarova kept in the best bits. These burst forth in the central act with a force that makes audiences gape. And the current first cast's hispanic trio of principals give it particular welly. Best of the lot is Marienela Nunez's rich-bitch Rajah's daughter, whose rock-steady pirouettes (some of them so tricky and rarely performed I'm still searching for a name for them) seem designed to floor her rival with each imperious flick of the foot.
Tamara Rojo's bayadère is equally unnervable in technique, but its her serene, implacable face that carries the spiritual weight of her plight - abandoned by her lover, sexually harassed by her priest, and finally murdered by her rival (snakebite to the jugular, no less), leaving her the sole option of morphing into a ghostly shade and haunting her lover forever. Rojo's acting glows with conviction and higher purpose. Her dancing as a Shade is both subtle and strong. The only pity is that the Royal doesn't alter the costume to flatter her: that bare midriff does Rojo no favours at all.
Between these two pillars of feminine will power, Carlos Acosta inserts his well-considered reading of the warrior Solor, all flabby moral fibre and thrillingly priapic elevations. The role doesn't offer much, but what there is he milks to the last drop with his beauteous line and heart-stopping leap. Together, he and Rojo seem to dare each other on.
But the principal high-spots are not the only reason to see this Bayadère. The lesser ranks are razor sharp in their tricky little foursomes and variations, and the 24-strong corps restore the Kingdom of the Shades vision to its proper place as the work's hypnotic raison d'être. As they descend their Himalayan slope in a dreamily identical line of dipping white tutus, you see why Monica Mason chose this funny old ballet just now. It works only when everyone pulls together, from the loftiest principal to the 24th girl down the ramp. Deep care and thought has gone into the preparation of this Bayadère, and it bodes well for the rest of Mason's tenure.
The Dance Umbrella festival threw a kind of 25th birthday party for itself last week, in a programme called Silver Celebration that promised a line-up of seasoned oldies and nostalgic hits. But they made an oddly assorted bunch. It felt like one of those family dos where friends find little to say to relatives. Richard Alston sent along an old piece, Roughcut, danced by raw-looking dancers who'd yet to grasp its jubilant style; Siobhan Davies presented two snippets of Birdsong, a piece that isn't finished, and Akram Khan (a spring chicken in this company) offered a film: snazzily made using the latest computer graphics but hardly a substitute for his own mesmeric person. When dancing is speeded up on screen, we cease to believe in it. Khan's wizardry is more impressive in the flesh. But the biggest let-down was the US veteran Sara Rudner performing her 1982 signature piece built on the sound of her own heartbeat. The technology was riveting - Rudner's body wired to a hospital monitor that amplified every thudding pulse, every scrunch of sinew. But the dance itself was dour and dithering. This was one of those ideas more interesting in concept than execution.
Not so the sensational Ice/ Dreams/ Fire which showed as a separate Umbrella event a few nights later, using contact technology to much more potent effect. Thomas Richards' hanging sculpture of frozen red shirts - inspired by the discovery of a 6,000-year-old corpse in Siberian permafrost - thaws over the course of the evening in a dual sensation: petals of red fabric slowly flare like petals of flame while the meltwater drips into metal pails, wired to Nick Rothwell's sound desk which turns their random patterings into eerie cave music. Old-time maverick Laurie Booth doodles kinetically around this living sound sculpture in a manner that owes much to martial arts, yoga and contact improvisation, but more to Booth's pugnacious individualism. On paper, this might sound like watching washing dry. Perhaps you just had to be there.
'La Bayadère': ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 13 NovReuse content