Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London<br/>Spartacus, Hippodrome, Birmingham

A tangled love for Henry James
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The Independent Culture

New work is a problem for most ballet companies. With a shortage of choreographers, promising artists are easily over-praised, and pushed forward. The Royal Ballet's new triple bill opens with Polyphonia, which proved there was more than hype to Christopher Wheeldon, and follows it with a new work by Canadian Matjash Mrozewski.

Mrozewski's Castle Nowhere ends as it's getting started. The curtain goes up on an attention-grabbing set by Yannik Larivée. Household objects hang overhead, insisting on period detail and sweeping it away. Mrozewski's title comes from a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson; the programme quotes Colm Toibin's novel The Master on her friendship with Henry James, on the need for companionship and independence.

Zenaida Yanowsky, vulnerable and strong, dances tangled duets with Edward Watson: arms linked, backs turned, both seeking intimacy and pulling away. There's a suggestion of social dance, with whirling waltz lifts, but Mrozewski doesn't fill in the details. Footwork is blandly non-specific, catching neither a period nor the rhythms of Arvo Pärt's clangorous, Third Symphony.

Mrozewski moves to the main Covent Garden stage after making just one work, the disliked World of Art, for a studio performance last year. In Castle Nowhere, he seems more assured.

The women carry themselves with elegance, and all eight dancers make an impression. But there isn't enough for them to do: they wind, turn and lift, and go on doing it until the next change in the music.

In the last duet, Mrozewski finds momentum. Yanowsky confronts Watson in dramatically shaped phrases. As the ballet moves into new territory, it comes to an abrupt end.

Wheeldon's Polyphonia has a welcome tautness. Four couples dance to Ligeti piano pieces, played by Henry Roche. It's a leotard ballet, with plenty of Balanchine echoes, but Wheeldon shows a distinctive, individual voice.

The ballet unfolds in a series of solos, duets, group dances. Steps are picked up from one dance to another, but what you notice is Wheeldon's response to this music. Martin Harvey carries Leanne Benjamin through arcs and turns, lying down as she curls overhead. Then Alina Cojocaru moves with gorgeous melancholy in a duet with Federico Bonelli, phrases long and soft. In a jazzy duet with Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson gives a rosy glow to her steps, syncopated innocence.

The evening ends with a revival of Kenneth MacMillan's Requiem. Despite clean, muscular dancing from Darcey Bussell and Carlos Acosta, this had too much awe - bodies beautiful, suffering glossily.

Trumpets blare, percussion rattles, and we're off. The Bolshoi Ballet opens its British regional tour with Spartacus, the biggest of the Soviet-era blockbusters. Everything about Yuri Grigorovich's 1968 ballet is enormous, from the size of the cast to the swooning score by Aram Khachaturian. On this first night, however, the company's dancing looked a few sizes smaller.

Not in numbers. Taking the story of Spartacus, the Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt, Grigorovich - formerly the company's director - takes every opportunity to bring on hordes of dancers. Legionaries strut through a balletic goose-step, slave girls lament, rebelling slaves hurl themselves into the air.

Traditionally, the Bolshoi move on a large scale, with sweeping line and expansive gestures. Grigorovich displayed that bigness in simple, heroic outlines. Spartacus jumps hugely, turns fiercely, leads his men and loves his wife; he has no flaws, and shows his greatness of character by the openness of his dancing. It isn't about subtlety: there isn't any. But the momentum of the Bolshoi in full cry can make Spartacus very enjoyable in the theatre.

RB in rep to 12 April (020-7304 4000). 'Spartacus' to 1 April (0870 730 1234), then touring to Salford, Nottingham and Southampton

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