Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

Reinventing the Wheeldon
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's latest programme cheerfully survives the loss of its centrepiece. A new work had been commissioned from Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most sought-after choreographers in ballet. Wheeldon started work, then succumbed to a viral infection. His new work had to be replaced. That's a serious loss, but the last-minute drama doesn't show in the performance. It's a fine evening, buoyantly full of virtuoso dancing.

The Royal Ballet's latest programme cheerfully survives the loss of its centrepiece. A new work had been commissioned from Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most sought-after choreographers in ballet. Wheeldon started work, then succumbed to a viral infection. His new work had to be replaced. That's a serious loss, but the last-minute drama doesn't show in the performance. It's a fine evening, buoyantly full of virtuoso dancing.

Wheeldon aside, the bill includes the new production of Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody. Ashton's ballet, danced to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, was made for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. The steps are show-stopping, shot through with fantasy and wit. The designs have always been a problem. William Chappell's first version was condemned as tinselly, Patrick Caulfield's 1995 production as overpoweringly bright. The ballet hasn't been revived much since then; this was the first time I had seen it.

Jessica Curtis's new backdrop shows a changeable sky, its clouds lit in sunset reds and golds. Her costumes are misty, soft tunics for the men and chiffon skirts for the women. It's an uncluttered production, and it emphasises the choreography's changing moods, its sparkle and mystery. Neil Austin's lighting, though, is rather too mysterious: I wish it were brighter.

Rhapsody is classically precise, yet full of strangeness. The solo man's jumps are explosive, with unexpected angles and odd changes of direction. The solo ballerina doesn't appear until well into the piece; when she does, she rushes straight into a dance with the supporting men. Her partner searches for her among the supporting women, whose hands cover their faces.

In one group dance, each of those women steps forward for a short solo. The last two dance together, while a third zig-zags her way back to the group. That's three dances, three floor patterns, at once. The whole stage seems to glow with dancing.

Carlos Acosta has all the steps for the Baryshnikov role. He's a virtuoso dancer, but he isn't naturally witty. The steps call for a mercurial response to the music, the audience, the other dancers. Leanne Benjamin dances the ballerina role with flair and quickness. One solo goes from flat-out, sparkling speed to a dead stop. Benjamin's stops are so sharp that they knock her almost off balance, propelling her into the rest of the dance. In Ashton's centenary year, the Royal Ballet is on a high. The dancers look eagerly responsive, at home with the fast footwork and flowing upper-body detail.

The new Wheeldon is replaced by two duets. Wheeldon's 1996 Pavane pour une Infante Défunte is set to Ravel. Darcey Bussell, in steely satin, is carried through flowing poses by Jonathan Cope. A giant arum lily hangs over the stage. Bob Crowley's designs lend this piece a 1940s fashion-model elegance, but Wheeldon's floaty choreography looks thin.

Balanchine's Duo Concertant is a duet full of music. Peter Manning and Philip Gammon play Stravinsky's Duet for Violin and Piano. Two dancers stand to listen, before the music pulls them into a dance. Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru are in playful, musical form. The evening ends with the sunburst of Balanchine's Symphony in C. It was a lively performance.

When you watch unfamiliar kinds of theatre, it's easy to be sidetracked by things you're supposed to take for granted. In Nihon Buyo, a programme of traditional Japanese dance, a soloist appears in an elaborate kimono, layers of fabric stiff with embroidery. Her dance consists of small gestures; what I noticed was the "invisible" attendant sitting behind her, ready to rearrange those robes in the most becoming folds.

Nihon Buyo is the oldest surviving form of Japanese dance, mentioned in a history written AD712. The company, also Nihon Buyo, is led by Nishikawa Senzo. Now 77, he has been dubbed a "living national treasure" by the Japanese government. He is supported by a company of dancers and 11 traditional musicians. The tour, which visits London, Edinburgh and Paris, shows several styles of Nihon Buyo. The first item is the simplest, a dance for men with fans; then there are two traditional solos, both lavishly dressed, and a new drama.

Costumes aside, the pieces are decidedly minimalist. Performers illustrate songs with emphatic facial expressions but tiny, stylised movements.

'Rhapsody' programme in rep to 5 April (020-7304 4000)

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