Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Jerome Bel, Sadler's Wells, London

Ashton, Macmillan and...Scarlett. This triple bill is a beautiful showcase of British choreography

Regardless where you stand on classical dance – sold on it, or sceptical – there may never be a better time to see the Royal Ballet.

Dame Monica Mason hands over the reins at the end of this season (that's June, in dance company-speak), and current programmes are packed with her favourite works, befriended over the course of a career spanning more than five decades.

Potted histories of British ballet don't come neater than the latest triple bill, which contrasts the humour of Sir Frederick Ashton with the dark contortions of Kenneth MacMillan, and proposes the bright neo-classicism of the rising generation, convinced that ballet has a future.

Asphodel Meadows was made last year, and if it's then 24-year-old choreographer Liam Scarlett felt at all daunted by his first commission for the Opera House stage, it doesn't show. Even his choice of music has chutzpah. Poulenc's double piano concerto pins you to the back of your seat with contrasting blasts of circus-band virtuosity, Parisian loucheness and Balinese exoticism. What an outing for company staffers Robert Clark and Kate Shipway, their fingers on fire.

Yet Scarlett never opts for the obvious, sketching an emotional landscape of his own complete with complex cross-hatching for the corps and luminous duets for three lead couples. He's particularly adept at contrast. One moment the stage is a pointillist flurry of motion; in a blink it's as still as a pond. The pas de deux revel in startling lifts whereby the girl floats serenely on the horizontal, like a trapezist spurning hand-holds.

By comparison, Ashton's Enigma Variations is hardly a ballet at all, more a sequence of fragile, quirky character sketches of friends of Edward Elgar. In the amber-lit nostalgia of Julia Trevelyan Oman's indoors/outdoors set, you can almost smell the pipe tobacco and cabbage roses.

Edwardian restraint gives way to grief in Gloria, MacMillan's response to the slaughter of the First World War, the horror sublimated in the smooth beauty of Poulenc's setting of the Mass. "Rex celestis" hymns the chorus of the Royal Opera, as dancers in Tommy helmets and blood-and-mud hued bodysuits cower behind raised arms or fling their limbs into shattered shapes. Leanne Benjamin is superb as the silver sliver of memory the soldiers cling to – distant country, mother and sweetheart all at once.

By means of a similarly distilled poetry the same choreographer succeeded in turning Mahler's great Song of the Earth into dance. Half a century later, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has tried too, with dire results.

Aware of the enormity of the task, she addresses only the final section of the score, the Abschied (Farewell), the culmination of Mahler's theme of death and transcendence. We hear it twice in full: in the legendary Kathleen Ferrier/Bruno Walter recording, then played live (and superbly) by the Belgian group Ictus, in Schoenberg's pared-down arrangement.

Around the music Keersmaeker and her partner in crime Jerome Bel weave a kind of rehearsal diary, detailing their difficulties in approaching Mahler.

How, in the 21st century, do you dance about death? And how do you respond to the song's consoling message of the earth's immortality, now that we're destroying the planet?

This is all fair enough, and it's a surprising treat to hear some of the music repeated several times, even when, in a spirit of experiment, it's performed with the players pretending to drop dead during the final fade. The irritation is Keersmaeker's contribution, which barely rises above the stumbling expressionism any music lover might attempt in the privacy of their home, and in Take 3, a stab at singing the score in a voice so flat and thin that you could pare cheese with it. Alienating and, frankly, weird.

RB triple: Tue & Wed (020-7304 4000)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert encounters Undance – the work of artist Mark Wallinger and dance-meister Wayne McGregor

Dance Choice

Every year throws up a slew of traditional Nutcrackers, but the production devised by Sir Peter Wright for Birmingham Royal Ballet is regularly voted the best for its clever design and narrative flow. This year, it not only plays its usual Birmingham Hippodrome run (to 11 Dec) but has four nights at the massive 02 in London (27-30 Dec).

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