Rambert, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Eye-balm from the one-time beastie boy of ballet
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The Independent Culture

Can it really be only three years since Rambert struck its current deal with Sadler's Wells, prompting a round of teeth-sucking over whether a home-grown, contemporary company could even half-fill a theatre of that size twice a season? The ecstatic response to Rambert's latest programme - three of its four items new - makes such doubts seem laughable. Thanks to the years of sterling spadework by Christopher Bruce and some adroit choices made by new director Mark Baldwin, Britain's oldest dance company is now as polished a package as any in the world.

Given the technical advances of the company, I can't believe Michael Clark's Swamp gave quite such a sleek account of itself back in 1986. This is the piece in which ballet's one-time beastie boy first hit on his way of marrying his fine classical schooling with the post-punk aesthetic. The result is a tightly wrought spectacle as pleasing to the general dance public as it once was to the piercing brigade. This well-timed revival emphatically proves Swamp's status as a classic.

Fuelled by the grungy roar of Bruce Gilbert's music and dressed in BodyMap's kinky, cut-out Lycra, Swamp's eight dancers engage in a range of movements so luminously clean that they are balm to the eyes. A pair of beautifully matched girls spins tramlines of identical pirouettes. Couples engage in slow, unfurling arabesques which seem to inhabit some silver-lit eternity. Formal geometry rules, yet the vibe is spaced-out. The hair-raising climax, when it comes, leaves the audience more breathless than the cast.

Yet Clark's is only one of the delights on this menu. Rafael Bonachela, fresh from winning the Place Prize, offers a striking duet for dancer (Amy Hollingsworth) and onstage violinist (Ruth Palmer), playing out a war of wills, Vytautas Barkauskas's score chivvying both into the most extreme positions.

And the crowd-pleaser comes in the form of Javier de Frutos's hysterically naughty setting of Cole Porter songs, Elsa Canasta. In the course of some slinky, Thirties-inspired duets and ensembles, the more usually hands-off zones of dancers' bodies get some amusingly hands-on treatment.

Yet it's the bill's opener, Kim Brandstrup's restrained Songs of a Wayfarer, that continues to buzz in my brain. Give this choreographer a fixed framework (Mahler's four short baritone songs about the bitterness and fury of love rejected) and you get a superb result. Didn't Frederick Ashton once say that 20 minutes was enough of anything? With a teeming imagination like Brandstrup's, less will always be more, and this exquisitely crafted ensemble work gains in force what it lacks in volume.

Plaudits especially to Ana Lujan Sanchez, the reluctant object of desire, for her flibbertigibbet speed and quick feeling, and to the still very young ex-apprentice Thomasin Gulgec as the angry reject, whose range of emotion-through-movement is already remarkable. If contemporary dance were into the business of star-making, then Gulgec would be one already.

There was more Brandstrup over at the Linbury Theatre where his Hans Christian Andersen tribute - a Danish commission to mark the bicentenary of the storyteller - was given its world premiere by his company, Arc. Keen to avoid doing a dance biopic, and even keener to dodge Danny Kaye associations, Brandstrup has gone for an almost Jungian dreamscape in which arcane details of the author's character and experiences are meshed with a handful of his stories.

Typically, production standards are tip-top. Brandstrup's collaborators - notably lighting designer Tina McHugh and image-makers The Brothers Quay - achieve great things using deep shadow, silhouettes, and mesh screens both behind and in front of the action on which stage-size video images create a fourth dimension. Atmosphere is everything in Brandstrup's work (he trained in film), and there are extended moments in Anatomy of a Storyteller when I couldn't imagine anything more powerful or more beautiful.

Yet for all its delicious mysteriousness, the work falls down on the very thing its subject excelled in: telling a story. It didn't help that the tales appeared in a different order from that given in the programme notes, but, worse, one was never quite sure who anyone was, or where fiction met history. Partly this was Brandstrup's intention (the old life-into-art debate). But I'm sure he didn't mean to baffle. More signposts would be useful.

Rambert: Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000), Wed to Fri; Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), 16-20 Nov; Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222), 1-4 Dec

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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