Rambert Dance Company, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

It's always hard to pinpoint why the winds of fashion change. Whether a hemline or the zeitgeist, you only notice when things move on. Was it only 1987 when the word ballet conjured such negative images that Rambert dropped it from its name? Now that same company's revamped artistic policy puts it right back in the frame. Regressive? Hardly. This looks gleamingly, thrillingly now.

New chief Mark Baldwin's first London season has a fierce contemporary stamp, yet every element of this programme is grounded in classical form. What's more, it trumpets Rambert's commitment to live music loud and clear. When you can call on a house band of the calibre of the London Musici, you must scrape every penny up to use it.

Baldwin hits the jackpot on all counts in his first Rambert commission - Living Toys, by the American Karole Armitage set to the music of Thomas Ades. Using all 22 of Rambert's dancers at the top of their form, the piece would satisfy purely as a technical showcase. But Ades's richly ambiguous score anchors it to a deeper level of experience. Clad spookily in white tubing like plastic marionettes (credit goes to DKNY's Peter Speliopoulos for this), the dancers present the music's dark odyssey as a disturbing monochrome dream. Sequences of bright serenity succumb to more aggressive energies. The figures' blunted, stockinged faces give nothing away. But as the music's raucous melee subsides into plangent solo voicings, one emerges from it feeling slightly bruised.

Less dark, but more visceral, comes Wayne McGregor's ballet. Pre-Sentient was last season's hit (commissioned by the out-going Christopher Bruce, and bravo to him), but now it looks sleeker and spikier than ever. Propelled by the shock of blinding stage lightning flashes, the dancers pitch themselves into McGregor's perilous balances at a speed that would snap most mortals' vertebrae. The musicians put in all the elbow grease Steve Reich's Triple Quartet demands. It feels like a race to the finish with only winners.

I'm not sure if someone whispered into the new director's ear that Rambert's triple bills have once or twice seemed on the thin side. I have certainly felt short-changed on the odd occasion when the intervals in an evening out-timed the dances, though the bar no doubt gaily cashes in. At any rate, this programme comes generously packed with two little extras from the company's own Glen Wilkinson: cheerfully modish alternative versions of what looks like the same low-slung solo in a club-dance groove. The fact that the dancer on each occasion seemed to be wearing a fringed mini-skirt over combats only intrigued me more. Football stadium lighting adds to the impression of a lone Glasgow Rangers reveller in a kilt. The pieces turn out to be from a longer work called Six Pack, so I guess I was picking up the right clues.

The final novelty of the show also scores points for generosity, offering a live cabaret act and some very good jokes. Javier de Frutos was inspired by the relatively recent discovery of a "lost" ballet score by Cole Porter from 1923. Frankly, after hearing it, I'd say Porter was right to stick with songs. But Frutos had the nous also to rope in three of his best ditties and have them sung by the syrup-voiced Melanie Marshall on a sweeping staircase.

And while we're hearing how she's "Ridin' High", we're also witnessing the thoroughly wicked sexual shenanigans of a flappers' party. Rumps (male) are clutched at, bosoms (female) wiggled, and poor Simon Cooper nearly gets decapitated by his grumpy girlfriend's thighs. It's louche, larky, and very nearly goes over the top. Given the fruity, same-sex permissiveness of the scene, I'm not surprised the company are leaving this one at home on their tour to China.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222), Wed to Sat

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