New York City Ballet, Coliseum, London

Personality is the answer to American wobbles

They were dishing out audience surveys at the Coliseum on Thursday night, perhaps in panicked response to the place being two-thirds empty. "When you think about New York City Ballet," ran the first question, "what three words or phrases come first to your mind?". In answer, someone had written: "Balanchine" [spot on!], "Baryshnikov" [nul points] and "no personalities", which just about sums up why this long-awaited visit has gone so peculiarly wrong. Audiences want personalities, and big ones.

The "Four Voices" bill ranked lowest on star-appeal. Moving on from the glory years of Balanchine and Robbins, this programme was meant to showcase recent choreography and presumably indicate its future direction. To judge from the first couple of items, though, you'd think dance invention was stuck pre-Cold War. Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (inspired by the Richard Rodgers musical) is coy to the point of drippiness. And for all its occasional bright ideas (the chorus suggesting swingboats and fairground ponies) there was far too much mundane waltzing and swaying, and for the lovers, tiresome running and yearning. Director Peter Martins's duet Zakouski was even more retrograde, with its ghastly cerise costumes and cheeky assumption of Russianness, the boy slapping his heels like a Cossack, the girl pouting and posing like a doll. As a piece of technical show-offery, Joaquin de Luz and Megan Fairchild served it fairly – she, especially, as she jumped and landed with a grin on her points (ouch!). But it was froth none the less – what used to be known as "a charmer", now risking the opposite effect.

Things looked up a bit with Mauro Bigonzetti's In Vento, whose lithe and tortuous choreography gives the 11 dancers a steamy allure, the girls kitted out like underwear models in black lace swimsuits. To darkly sardonic music by Bruno Moretti, themes of urban loneliness and fraught sexual connections play out. A girl jumps, stiff as a post, at a boy who catches her with one hand clamped over her mouth. Leggy siren Teresa Reichlen, in the central tussle, alternates fierce independence and weary collapse. The excellent Benjamin Millepied writhes and resists manfully.

Alexei Ratmansky's Russian Seasons – imagine Les Noces without Stravinsky or the wedding – might have seemed an odd inclusion in this programme were it not for the fact that its Russian choreographer is soon to throw in the towel as boss of the Bolshoi to become resident choreographer for this company (replacing Brit Christopher Wheeldon). As such, it augurs well. Like Leonid Desyatnikov's clamorous music, which uses folk melodies and Orthodox rituals yet strikes the ear as new, Ratmansky's dance determinedly looks to the future, while planting one foot in the past. Never mind that this number is all about Russianness, and you thought this company sold Manhattan cool. Any work that has potential as a modern classic is to be welcomed, and this bold, sincere and even briefly funny work has definite come-again appeal.

And so to the final programme, "Ballet and Broadway" which (predictably enough) didn't have the same trouble shifting £95 tickets. Again it started blandly, with Thou Swell, Peter Martins's big-budget tribute to the songs of Richard Rodgers providing eyefuls of shallow nightclub glamour, and more ham than a sandwich. The pizzazz arrived unexpectedly in the second item, Balanchine's little-known Tarantella, ostensibly a classic Neapolitan duet with tambourines, yet spiked with Broadway flourishes and circus-worthy aerial tricks. Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht gave it welly – fearless and stylish both – and Ulbricht bashed his tambourine so hard it fell to pieces. Western Symphony, Balanchine's tribute to the wild west, caught the same spirit, now extended to a company of 36. It was hard, at times, not to whoop aloud in response to the joyous lines of spinning saloon molls and leaping cowboys, stetsons in hand, or to whistle Albert Evans's rolling-gaited sheriff, coolly tongue-in-cheek. But ballet audiences are impeccably behaved, of course. By the time it came to Jerome Robbins's West Side Story Suite, and the dancers dropped their ballet manners and got down and dirty and dangerous as the knife-ready Sharks and Jets, the company had fully redeemed its wobbles of earlier in the fortnight.

Perhaps Balanchine was wrong to insist on "no personalities". He had wanted the choreography to be the star of the show. But that, ultimately, depends on individual talents. For me, it will be the extravagant line of Ms Reichlen, the lightness of M Millepied, the rubber-heeled qualities of Mr Ulbricht, and those flying, silvery shards of tambourine that continue to play in my brain.

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