Rambert, Birmingham Hippodrome

Gleaming gold threads on an old blank canvas
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The Independent Culture

As the new artistic director of Britain's oldest dance company, Mark Baldwin has taken on a juggling act. A modernist by inclination, he is committed to commissioning work, "rather that just pulling in what's fashionable." But Rambert has always prized its back catalogue, and in the year of Frederick Ashton's centenary that past is more pressing than ever. Rather than simply pile on the revivals, however, Baldwin has done something much cleverer: he's honoured the company's founding choreographer by tracing the outline of a ghost.

As the new artistic director of Britain's oldest dance company, Mark Baldwin has taken on a juggling act. A modernist by inclination, he is committed to commissioning work, "rather that just pulling in what's fashionable." But Rambert has always prized its back catalogue, and in the year of Frederick Ashton's centenary that past is more pressing than ever. Rather than simply pile on the revivals, however, Baldwin has done something much cleverer: he's honoured the company's founding choreographer by tracing the outline of a ghost.

A Tragedy of Fashion was an item on Rambert's debut programme in 1926. It was also the piece that launched Ashton's career as a choreographer. Yet little evidence now exists of the smart little satire about a couturier who stabs himself with dressmaker's shears when his new collection fails. Inspired by this threadbare scenario, Ian Spink has embroidered it with characters and motifs from Ashton's life to create a densely detailed canvas picturing the worlds of ballet and couture in the 1920s. Cecil Beaton with his nosy camera, Nijinsky with his animal poses, Ashton's penchant for rough trade all make an appearance in a series of scenes tracking back from a funeral cortège headed by the flappers from Nijinska's Les Biches.

Only those in the know will clock the references, but there's plenty for the oblivious, too, including some merciless fun with a duo of spinsters (Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois?) and a catwalk parade in which models teeter in madly impractical frocks - one of them dragging the bolt of cloth which the designer, in his haste, has forgotten to detach. This is the least of the worries besetting M.Duchic, the couturier whose relationships go pear-shaped and whose murky dealings with a character called Diego - who may represent death - equally fail to satisfy.

Spink's delight in his subject is matched in vivid designs by Antony McDonald and Juliette Blondelle, and the tango-inspired music of Elena Kats-Chernin - a real discovery - excellently served by the playing of the London Musici. While there's no doubt Ashton's Tragedy contained more choreography, it can hardly have been more fun.

The company serves up the real thing with Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Ashton's 1976 homage to a distant dance inspiration of his own. Holding the stage alone for 20 minutes, without scenery or props beyond a fistful of rose petals and a scarf, Amy Hollingsworth breasts imaginary breezes, darts after invisible butterflies and makes a general obeisance to nature with a sincerity and sensuousness to win over the hardest 21st-century heart.

Completing the bill are Rafael Bonachela's Linear Remains, a glimmering study of extended limbs swimming in white noise, and Fin Walker's Reflections, the effect of which, I'm afraid, was to make me reflect how glad I am not to be in the business of commissioning contemporary dance.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Rambert: Birmingham Hippodrome (0870 730 1234), Wed to Sat; New Theatre, Oxford (0870 606 3500), 9 to 12 June; Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 332 9000), 15 to 17 June

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