Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, Sadler's Wells, London; Ballo della Regina/La Sylphide, Royal Opera House, London

Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave: that's the Bourne legacy

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The Independent Culture

It's not just the humour of Matthew Bourne's early work that makes it so remarkable. It's also the gayness. Emerging from dance training in the late 1980s, Bourne set up his fledgling company in a world still sniggering behind its hand, pre-Section 28, at the notion of male love.

To judge by Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, a collection of pieces revived to mark his company's 25th birthday, he was happy for his audiences to laugh too: at the discreet pick-up tactics of a pair of Brylcreemed, tweed-suited hotel guests in Town & Country; at the preening of a bunch of male underwear models in Spitfire; at a merman fluttering his tailfins at a trio of sailors in The Infernal Galop. But Bourne's jokes invite laughter of an open-hearted kind – easy and affectionate, confident and unthreatened.

What's just as interesting is how other Bourne hallmarks were in place long before the career breakthrough of Swan Lake. Here is the bent for parody, the referencing of old films and ballets, the sometimes startling economy of means. A highlight is a five-minute rendering of Brief Encounter, in which not one but two bashful couples meet in the railway refreshment room. To the familiar swell of Rachmaninov, they speed through their affair in duplicate, complete with an illicit trip to the flicks, from which they make an embarrassed early exit, edging along the imagined row of knees.

Spitfire, from 1988, is a double parody, merging the styling of 1950s men's underwear adverts with a historic pas de quatre made for four famous 19th-century ballerinas. With its clench-fisted, macho posings to Minkus's pompous ballet music, it should be hilarious. But there are only so many times a quizzically raised eyebrow can be funny, even when delivered by a man struggling to retain his dignity in single-flap-access briefs.

You may smile at Mr Bourne's early adventures, then, and marvel a little. But best save your cheers for the superior sophistication of his Play Without Words, next up for revival.

The Royal Ballet, meanwhile, continues its pick of the pops in Dame Monica Mason's final season. The current double bill has everything – speed, history, underwater swimming, kilts – in the Balanchine spritzer Ballo della Regina and Bournonville's love-in-a-glen La Sylphide . These two ballets, 140 years apart, show the company at the top of its best form, beaming in the face of extreme technical challenge (Ballo) and rendering a hoary relic as fresh as the dew.

'Early Adventures' tours until 30 Jun ( Royal Ballet double bill (020-7304 4000): 7, 12 and 15 Jun

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