Romeo and Juliet, Royal Opera House, London<br/>The Snow Queen, Hippodrome, Bristol

Stand-in makes the leap to stardom
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The Independent Culture

Steven McRae's debut as Romeo, standing in for an injured Johan Kobborg, is the big news of this Royal Ballet revival. At 21, the Australian McRae is already a star at Covent Garden.

This was McRae's first lead in a three-act ballet, the first time he has taken on such demanding partnering. He makes an eager, adolescent Romeo, but the surprise is how ready he is to take risks, to go beyond his obvious strengths.

Kenneth MacMillan's choreography gives Romeo an expansive solo in the ballroom scene – a young man trying to catch Juliet's eye. If anything, McRae downplays the showier steps. His turns and jumps are soft, silkily smooth, lyrical rather than explosive. He isn't just aiming to knock the audience's eye out.

McRae and his Juliet, the tiny Alina Cojocaru, make a very young couple. Unmasked at the Capulet ball, McRae's Romeo looks like a stroppy teenager. Watching for his chance to dance with Juliet, he's both smitten and defiant. Cojocaru has touches of adolescent gaucheness: pulling her shoulders up into a shrug when uncertain, hugging her knees when scared.

Cojocaru knows how to bring the same teenage quality to the balcony scene, hurtling into McRae's arms. He takes a more romantic view of the scene, emphasising tenderness over sexual urgency. That comes partly from his care over the athletic partnering of MacMillan's celebrated pas de deux. Like many virtuoso male dancers, McRae is small; he's also young, and comparatively inexperienced in duets. There were a few touches of strain in the high, complex lifts, but he was never insecure. Cojocaru makes a supportive partner.

This couple are most touching in the bedroom duet. Even before Romeo leaves, both dancers are already isolated, desperate and vulnerable.

McRae deals with violence headlong, hurling himself into the fight with Tybalt. His acting is broader than Cojocaru's, but he has presence, focus and a sense of pace.

This was McRae's night, but around him, the whole company was raising its game. Leading the Mandolin Dance, Michael Stojko threw in extra cartwheels and backflips. Laura Morera is a witty Harlot, not at all pleased when the newly serious Romeo gives her a chaste kiss on the forehead. The Capulets have a vivid family dynamic on stage: when Juliet agrees to marry Paris, the whole family group relax, tension visibly ebbing.

Meanwhile, in Bristol, and on tour leading up to Christmas, English National Ballet's The Snow Queen is the company's most ambitious project in years. Michael Corder's new three-act ballet uses a rare Prokofiev score to tell Hans Christian Andersen's tale. The title and story are familiar enough to make this a family show, but Corder's eye is firmly on ballet's classical tradition. There is oodles of dancing – so much, in fact, that there's little room for the emotional journey Corder tries to take us on.

Corder's best and boldest decision is his choice of music. Prokofiev's last ballet score The Stone Flower is little known in the West, being saddled with a tricky plot about a stone carver. The music has some sparkling supernatural elements and lively peasant scenes, which Corder and his arranger Julian Philips have adapted to suit the Snow Queen and the young hero and heroine, Kay and Gerda.

Corder has streamlined the Andersen story, dropping some of its many episodes and making Kay and Gerda teenagers rather than children. The Snow Queen becomes more actively malevolent, carrying Kay off because she envies his happy relationship with Gerda. As in the tale, Gerda travels north to rescue him, meeting a reindeer, a Lapp woman and other characters on her way.

This new storyline emphasises romantic love, but lacks emotional depth. Daria Klimentova's Snow Queen is a frosty allegro ballerina, but Corder's truncated mime scenes give her no room to express jealousy or rage. The Snow Queen's mirror is hastily broken, Kay is snatched in a hurry. The plot points are lightweight because they're given so little time. Kay and Gerda have hardly been separated before they're reunited in a dream pas de deux.

Corder's fluently conventional steps tell us too little about his characters. Fernanda Oliveira's Gerda smiles or suffers in fairly similar style. When she confronts the Snow Queen and her court, the stage is full of people doing arabesques at each other.

Even the Reindeer, Max Westwell in body tights and disappointingly small antlers, is given the same kind of classical steps. Yosvani Ramos, a naturally sunny dancer, still looks as though he might be teasing when, as the unfortunate Kay, he falls under the Snow Queen's spell.

Click here for Romeo and Juliet website

'Romeo and Juliet' in rep to 25 November (020-7304 4000); ENB on tour to 16 December (www.ballet.org.uk)

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