Push 04, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

This double-bill staggers under its good intentions.

This double-bill staggers under its good intentions. Push is a season of new work - theatre, opera, ballet - led by black artists. Press releases bubble over with references to diversity and broken boundaries. But the works themselves are stale, looking dated at their first performance.

In Errollyn Wallen's opera Another America: Fire, supported by English National Opera, a black female astronaut is preparing for her mission to Mars. But Wallen's score and libretto give the heroine Asante's ambitions little impact.

As Asante prepares for lift-off, she remembers the events that have brought her this far, and questions whether she can go through with the mission. With its flashbacks and its Big Decision, this could be a 1940s movie: think of Bette Davis choosing between good-girl self-sacrifice and a life of wicked glamour. But those movies had energy and a sense of real dilemma. Wallen is flatly certain about her heroine's decision. Asante burbles about her doubts, but they're never given serious weight. Her boyfriend has a tantrum because he wants her to stay. Her father calls her his "star baby", her mother nags. Their scenes are quick, their vocal lines cramped. The music gives no depth to jealousy, pride, anxiety.

Wallen also drags in Asante's ancestors to push her to the stars. They urge her on, making vague references to slavery and destiny. Jacqueline Miura as Asante sings clearly enough, but it's a thankless role.

Wallen's music is all carefully varied orchestral textures and John Adamsish vocal writing. It's under-characterised: no distinct sound worlds for people or ideas. Asante's decision is the only resonant moment - and that's because Wallen lifted it straight from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

Awakening, supported by ROH2 at the Royal Opera House, seems harmlessly dull. It's a myth ballet, based on a Ghanaian tale. The hero Adom has had three wives; all three have died. He sets off for the underworld in search of them, fighting through forests full of vampires. A good spirit sends him back to the upper world, where he marries again and lives happily ever after.

As told by choreographer Ben Love and composer Paul Gladstone Reid, it's all rather blurry. Reid's music is repetitive: bombastic chords for the magic scenes, half-sketched melodies for the villagers. Love uses ballet's academic vocabulary, but can't give dramatic or lyrical edge to his classroom steps. Adom, the athletic Jhe Russell, suffers with assemblés, beats off vampires with pirouettes à la seconde.

Reaching the underworld, he meets the Matron of the Veil (Sheron Wray, a fine dancer). They gesticulate at each other, and Adom dances with his dead wives before returning to the real world. What happened? Like Wallen's opera, this ballet is about overcoming depression and doubt, but it doesn't make that process real.

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