Martha Graham Dance Co, Sadler's Wells, London<br></br>Royal Ballet<br></br>Royal Opera House, London

Ballsy, stylish, polished. Just try not to giggle
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The Independent Culture

Four years ago, when the Martha Graham troupe last came to London, no one could have guessed that its demise was imminent. The mother of modern dance had died aged 96 leaving an astonishing legacy created over eight decades. Her company was devoted to honouring it, a still-curious public devoured it.

Yet only months later the company fell apart following a spectacular falling-out between the dancers and Ron Protas, Graham's heir. The dancers refused to perform under him. He struck back by claiming ownership of all Graham's works. Earlier this year, however, a judge pronounced in favour of the dancers: the performance rights had never been Graham's to bequeath, he said.

All this gave an air of celebration to the week's performances at Sadler's Wells, but did nothing to address the problems of sustaining a court without its queen. Few dancers remain who knew the company's founder, and their fierce stylistic polish contrasts markedly with the novices' blander bearing. Terese Capucilli in the stark, breast-beating Heretic (1929), Christine Dakin in the 1937 Spanish Civil War solo Deep Song - these are mature women not just with extraordinarily muscled and articulate bodies but with deep dark things going on in their heads.

Yet the urge to giggle at Graham's angst is never far off for a modern spectator. When she invented her jagged new language of movement, and threw out traditional ballet themes in favour of Greek myths viewed through the prism of Freud, it was a movement born of its time. We now have to make a few adjustments.

Errand Into the Maze (1947) is one of the trickier works to pull off, the narrative of Ariadne's tussle with the Minotaur used to explore a woman's fear of sex. At Wednesday's performance, its mirthless histrionics tested the audience to the limit. Alessandra Prosperi was convincing enough in her ballsy mood swings but Christophe Jeannot's Minotaur - bare-chested, be-horned, and tied up with ribbon like a birthday present - was impossible to take seriously.

There is a sunny side to Graham, as seen in Satyric Festival Song of 1932, which features a dancer in a caterpillar-striped knitted tube in some very larky moves. Blakely White-McGuire strutted, wiggled, swished her mane of hair and made a physical show of mirth into such sexy, infectious movement that the audience laughed with her - in grateful relief perhaps.

A dance company must be more than a museum, and MGDC shows signs of acknowledging this. Its reading of the celebrated Appalachian Spring still has the power to jolt audiences beyond the heritage comforts of its clapper-board charm. Aaron Copland's lovely score was crisply played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Every movement, every gesture on stage looked clean-etched and fresh. Again, the two men were the weakest elements. But then, that's probably how Graham preferred them. Female supremacy was never in doubt.

On the other side of town the Royal Ballet was also playing keeper of the flame. George Balanchine's Four Temperaments is another mid-20th-century turning point in dance. It was Mr B's mission statement, defining the way American ballet would go for the next 50 years. It's a repertory mainstay in the US, but the Royal hasn't touched it for 30 years. So Monica Mason's decision to revive it is - depending on how you look at it - either a mark of confidence in her company, or a gamble. Balanchine's brassy attack is a far cry from the embroidering Ashton style the RB dancers grow up with, and Tuesday's second-night cast was clearly still finding its feet. Minneapolis-born Deirdre Chapman cut the sharpest figure - all hard feminine mystique as if trailing a poodle round Madison Avenue shops. Jaimie Tapper (a Canadian) came close in her variation, and Ivan Putrov's solo was gorgeously lyrical but still a long way from anything New York City Ballet would recognise as Balanchine style.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

RB triple bill: ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to Sat

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