Arena ballet isn't new– it was huge in the 1930s. But it's certainly enjoying a resurgence, what with the Royal Ballet taking on the 02 this week, Michael Clark doing business in the former engine room at Tate Modern, and English National Ballet installed at the Albert Hall (and filling it easily, post-reality TV exposure).
Clark's project is the most surprising, coming from one whose personal shyness, coupled with a history of creative inertia, might have warned him off attempting to animate a trough-shaped industrial space with a cast of 60, 48 of them amateurs. It was certainly a gamble for Tate Modern.
But wow, has it come good, not only drawing the best choreography from Clark in years, but setting a marker for the possibilities of non-proscenium spaces for dance (here, seats were raked against three walls). The late start could also set a trend: 9.30pm the night I went, 10.30pm on subsequent nights. It means the audience arrive relaxed, fed and watered.
The work's title, th, may be a nod to Clark's sense of smallness in that great crushing vault of a space, but he fights it with panache: a zebra-striped floor shouts at the distant sky-light ceiling, and his amateur crowd, clad in unisex black togas, make a similarly graphic impact with their tightly drilled unison. These really are first-time Joes and Janets, not dance-school semi-pros, so the movements are undemanding – walking patterns and traffic-cop gestures – but their impact en masse is fabulous, especially when they all lie flat on the floor.
Clark's own dancers – all the more godlike in contrast – maintain the sense of the monumental in sleek duets and ensembles whose pattering rhythms cut satisfyingly against the steady thump of David Bowie and Pulp. For once, there are no rude gimmicks, and piebald skin-suits (by Stevie Smith) manage to flatter the dancers while fulfilling a dazzling graphic function. In all, then, an uplifting event.
ENB's Strictly Gershwin will appeal to a very different constituency. The title sucks but it's logical enough: the music is all George Gershwin (albeit snazzed up in orchestrations by Gareth Valentine), and the format throws champion ballroom couples into the mix. The result is a hybrid, and a curious one, but never less than upbeat.
The Albert Hall can be a beast of a space for ballet, with the orchestra stacked distantly at one end, and the focus so wide. Derek Deane's choreography goes some way to mitigate this with kaleidoscopic effects, so that there's always something happening in the bit nearest you. But overhead screens showing Hollywood's finest are a mistake. Slo-mo clips of Fred and Ginger are just too distracting.
As the evening's closer, Rhapsody in Blue fields lines of shimmering tutus that wobble like jellyfish as the clarinet musters its ascending wail – Roberta Guidi di Bagno did the costumes and they're gorgeous. Overall, though, for all its glitzy energy, Strictly Gershwin is a pot-boiler.
'Strictly Gershwin' is at the Royal Albert Hall to 19 Jun (0845 401 5045), and tours from Oct; Michael Clark's 'th': last performance tonight (020-7887 8888).
The Royal Ballet goes mega at the 02