Royal Ballet Triple Bill: Mark Morris Dance Group, Royal Opera House/Sadler's Wells, London

Three steps behind the competition
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's latest triple bill keeps falling short of its ambitions.

Wayne McGregor's new Limen is framed by dazzling digital installations, but can't find the steps to match. Glen Tetley's Sphinx gets tangled in Greek myth, while Balanchine's Agon was shockingly under-rehearsed.

Limen is dominated by Tatsuo Miyajima's video designs. Numbers are projected onto a screen at the front of the stage, floating and turning. There's a remarkable illusion of depth, as if numbers were swimming past the dancers in a blue sea. Behind the screen, the 15 dancers come and go, vanishing into the blue shadows at the back of the stage. Kaija Saariaho's cello concerto, Notes on Light, is full of drifting, shimmering sound.

Miyajima's imagery overwhelms the dance inside it. The steps are inconsequential, full of McGregorisms – the arched spine with jutting buttocks, dancers grabbing their ankles to lift a leg still higher, the quick, dithering shifts of weight. This time, they're danced without McGregor's usual urgency. Eric Underwood ties Sarah Lamb into long-legged knots. The duet uses Lamb's strength and flexibility, but it's weirdly insubstantial.

Glen Tetley's pieces are full of muscular grapplings. Sphinx, created in 1977, uses pointework and weighted modern dance in a convoluted story inspired by Cocteau's play La Machine Infernale. Marianela Nuñez is on sensuous form as the Sphinx, who in this version falls for Oedipus (Rupert Pennefather). Anubis, danced with melodramatic intensity by Edward Watson, warns her it will end in disaster.

Tetley treats warning, doubt and love with the same brawny style. His dancers strike big poses, wind around each other and spin into fast turns or big leaps to the intense Martinu score. His symbolism and his narrative are overheated, but the dancers do him proud.

Melissa Hamilton stood out in the pas de deux from Agon, cool and poised in its extreme positions. Balanchine's ballet deserves more care: on the opening night, half the men reached their last pose two beats late.

Over at Sadler's Wells, the return of Mark Morris is cause for rejoicing. One of the world's most-loved choreographers, Morris is adored for his openness, his musicality and his warm, full-bodied style. This UK tour shows Morris back on form, with a programme ranging from lullabies to imperialism.

Empire Garden starts with dancers in near-darkness. There's a prowling softness to their steps, followed by a sudden sideways bend. At once, you can see the strength and style of this company. Danced to a Charles Ives trio for violin, cello and piano, it's a dense, knotted work to dense, complex music.

The dancers break from marching struts into jazz dance poses. Ives' snatches of folk songs are matched with brief marching steps, vanishing almost before you recognise them.

Bedtime is danced to Schubert lieder. A woman dances a lullaby, her movements floatingly soft. Around her, sleeping dancers shift position, snuggling into the stage. Sleep turns to nightmare with the final song, "Erlkönig", which acts out the tale of a child stolen by a magic creature. Morris's response to the words is both abstract and precise. The corps whirl around the father and son, like the storm, and group around the Erlking like a grove of trees. As the child, David Leventhal is intrigued and scared by the Erlking.

V isn't one of my favourite Morris works. The scampering lacks the lovely spontaneity of Morris's best work, while he's pedantic about picking out musical motifs from his Schumann score. Even here, I love the dancers' crawl. Each prowling step is springy, then sharply cut off. Morris has always chosen dancers who look like real people on stage. Here, they don't look human. That stealthy crawl turns them into insects, lizards, something alien.

Royal Ballet, to 18 November (020 7304 4000); Mark Morris, touring to 21 November (