Mmm..., Barbican, London <br/> Up from the Waste, Soho Theatre, London <br/> The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Sometimes a comment idly overheard can tell you everything you need to know. "About 10 years ago, in the mid-Eighties, he was really, really famous," the man sitting behind me whispered to his friend during a pause in Michael Clark's Stravinsky Project Part 2. Certainly fame has given Clark, now 44, an awful lot of rope with which to hang himself. He disappeared for the best part of a decade after almost obliterating himself with drugs, has been coaxed and coddled back to a semblance of creativity, and remains the most indulged and excused choreographer of our time.

How does he get away with it? Is it just that no one else is working at the interface of fashion, rock and Brit Art? Partly, but he also has quality. For all the tiresomely predictable deviancy - the bare bottoms and lavatory-seat costumes - there is still something angelic about Clark's dances. And this is seen at its best in the short pieces that preface his take on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, first seen in 1992 when its hedonistic title Mmm... was provocatively spelled out as Michael's Modern Masterpiece.

For me, Clark is more convincing in small bites, as a shape maker rather than a grand interpreter of seminal scores. On an op-art zebra floor, he sends his 12 dancers out in black felt helmets that make them resemble The Beano's Billy Whiz, only they're not whizzing anywhere. The ballet-based moves are severe and slow, countering the sternum-punching blast of tracks by Wire, Public Image Ltd and the Sex Pistols. Technical precision is Clark's obsession, and it pays off handsomely in the control of fine dancers such as Kate Coyne and Melissa Hetherington, whose solos are superb. Clark himself scuttles on now and again, a white-coated lab technician checking on his guinea-pigs. The stripped-down aesthetic even surmounts schmaltz, as Clark revisits his "Bring On The Clowns" routine (to Barbra Streisand), the dancers naked but for an artfully placed fur muff.

I confess I don't see what Clark is up to in his Rite of Spring. The stage set is handsome (Steven Scott's eight revolving doors, mirrored on one side to create blinding light effects) and Leigh Bowery's costumes predictably odd (red vinyl kilts and sequinned noses). But though there is a nod to Nijinsky in the odd knock-kneed pose, Clark otherwise pays no heed to the original ballet's theme of tribal sacrifice. In fact, he might as well be choreographing to the Stranglers, since he also ignores most of Stravinsky's churning rhythms (presented in the two-piano version with dryly correct playing from Philip Moore and Andrew West).

And then there's the silliness. Clark's cameo as a pregnant snowman only draws attention to the absence of organic ideas. Amy Hollingsworth's sterling efforts to dance herself to death on an empty stage - wearing nothing but big white pants and a Hitler moustache - whips up a fine old sweat but looks futile and sad. Though there are some startlingly lovely moments in this disjointed Rite, the result is more like hubris than a masterpiece.

The ex-New York City Ballet dancer Antonia Franceschi presents a more modest view of herself in Up From The Waste, also a reworking of something made earlier. Yet her grippingly dreadful life story and spunky way of telling it make you wish that this one-hour show could go on another hour more. Beautifully directed by Nancy Meckler, it deftly varies the tone by switching the narrative voice: sometimes recorded speech over dance action, sometimes Franceschi chatting from the stage. Clocking these changes of gear keeps you on your toes.

In a Manhattan ballet studio, a patriarchal voice jolts us into the dancer's brutal world. "Not another sickle-footed, fuck-arsed piqué," sighs someone that may or may not be George Balanchine. "Do the goddam diagonal again and get it right you doe-eyed bitch."

The narrative blows back to a pubescent Franceschi, dodging the perils of gangland but falling foul of weirdos on the subway perverts on the stairwell and eventually anal rape. It's an ugly story, and you suspect this wasn't even the full text, but since the dancer doesn't ask for pity, it's not lowering, just an eye-opener. You know she ended up OK, because there she is in front of you: accomplished, attractive and psychologically sorted. A soundtrack that takes in the Jackson Five and Philip Glass gives great period flavour, and the dance-acting support is strong.

A final word about the return of the Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty, which occasioned no end of carping last May from critics claiming total recall of the 1946 production on which it is based. The obvious fact of the matter is that what the majority of us didn't see, the heart won't grieve over. This Beauty is magnificent, the company ensemble has never been stronger, and the present extended run offers a choice of no fewer than eight Auroras. Go revel.

Jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

* 'Up From The Waste': Soho Theatre, W1 (0870 429 6883) to Sat; 'Sleeping Beauty': ROH, WC2 (020 7304 4000) in rep to 20 Dec

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