Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London

What a shame this birthday celebration so quickly palls
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The Independent Culture

When a British dance company reaches the age of 40, having weathered more financial crises than all Britain's banks combined, it has earned a degree of respect. When that company remains determined to maintain a live orchestra, and when it takes its work to parts of Britain that ballet doesn't normally reach, ovations are in order.

The pity is that Northern Ballet Theatre chose to head its anniversary outing to Sadler's Wells with material that had all the 21st-century daring of a pair of elasticated slacks.

I dare say things were looking up by Thursday, when the programme switched to the company's distinctive take on Romeo and Juliet, an evergreen hit. But the triple bill it fielded midweek, while showing the dancers in a range of styles, did nothing to stamp out that damaging old prejudice about arts in the regions and horses that mustn't be frightened.

The song-and-dance medley As Time Goes By starts smartly enough, on a stage set with lamp- lit tables, canoodling couples and – what's that grey stuff ... tobacco smoke? Nostalgia indeed. The 21-year-old crooner Peter Grant proves a more than competent interpreter of old favourites such as Van Morrison's "Moondance", and NBT's excellent house band, under John Pryce-Jones, clearly enjoys giving it welly with raunchy growls from the wind and brass.

The dancers, too, look lively in the opening numbers, the girls managing to swing a little showgirlishness without looking hobbled by their pointes, the boys leaping and turning and skidding on to their knees with an enthusiasm that verges on reckless. But 10 minutes into David Nixon's choreography (and he's also the artistic director, you should know), the sameness of the steps starts to matter. And so does the insistent romantic tone. One number had so little merit in any department that it looked and sounded like a cheesy echo of last weekend's Eurovision.

Angels in the Architecture, by the American Mark Godden, looks fresh and sculpted by contrast. The dancers also seem more evenly matched – polished girls against try-hard boys – in its more contemporary style. Again, though, initial ideas quickly pall. The piece is purportedly inspired by the Shaker community, and yes, many twig-brooms and slatted chairs are brandished. But why are the women dressed in off-the-shoulder evening gowns? The Shakers were so prudish they didn't even reproduce! There are also puzzling overtones of wife-beating as the brooms are wielded and swung – perhaps this is meant to be threshing corn, but it's a worry. By the end, with the women balled like woodlice on the floor with their skirts over their heads and a chair plonked over each of them, I didn't know whether to giggle or protest. What a waste when Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring gets such a fine account from the pit. Compared with Martha Graham's 1944 dancework to the same score, which makes the heart swell with thoughts of the founding of America, this is piffle.

And so to Gillian Lynne's A Simple Man, the main draw for many at the Wells who – to judge by the average age – remember it from 1978. As you'd expect from the choreographer of Cats, this homage to the Salford painter LS Lowry is full of strong shapes and picturesque industrial-town incident, but its episodic structure gives it the slightly uneasy feel of a musical in which the cast have been forbidden to speak or sing.

The filmic scope of Carl Davis's score carries the action vividly from northern brass oompahs to dreamy seascape to the honk of the factory hooter and trudge of hobnailed boot, and there is true pain and pathos in the scenes between Darren Goldsmith's Lowry and his jealous, difficult mother (Nathalie Léger). There, too, in the triple-vision treatment of Georgina May's Ann, is the imaginative spirit so abjectly lacking in the rest of this show. A Simple Man might be showing its age, but it's bold and solid work. What NBT needs is another Gillian Lynne-style epiphany. Strike out! I dare you.

New Theatre, Cardiff (029 -2087 8889) 16-20 Jun

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