Royal Ballet Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

There's a certain heaviness about the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill. It's a varied, ambitious programme, with major scores, handsome designs and choreography by Ashton and MacMillan. These are important revivals, and dancing standards are high. Even so, the first night didn't quite flow.

The evening starts with David Bintley's Tombeaux, a tutu ballet danced to Walton's Variations on a Theme by Hindemith. Jasper Conran's designs put the ballet in a deep blue forest. Costumes are dark and elegant.

Bintley's choreography aims for similar elegance. A corps of 12 women circles and regroups, a soloist suddenly bounding out in leggy steps. Dancers sink to one knee, or recline on the stage. The ballerina is elusive; her partner pursues her, then gets sidetracked into other visions. Some of Bintley's partnering is fiendish. In one lift, the woman is swept overhead and turned upside down before flowing down her partner's back.

It's the most inventive Bintley ballet I can remember, but it leaves a fuzzy impression. The corps dances are full of busy steps and blurred floor patterns. The ballerina is carried through a series of pliés, pushing her feet into the stage floor. It's a variation on Ashton's famous walking-on-air dances, but it's earthbound. Steps and music pull in different directions. This performance was brightly danced, though, with Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru dashing in the lead roles.

Elgar's Enigma Variations showed the composer's friends "pictured within". Frederick Ashton's ballet turns the score into a series of danced portraits. It can be very moving, but it's a hard work to bring off. The dances are full of half-sketched gestures, understated emotions. On a bad night, the ballet sinks under the layers of Julia Trevelyan Oman's Edwardian designs, dancers smothered in frills.

This revival is halfway there. You can see the feeling in these dances, but they're still coming into focus. There are strong performances here. Christopher Saunders is a dignified Elgar, with Zenaida Yanowksy warmly graceful as the composer's wife. Sarah Lamb is an ethereal Lady Mary Lygon, her phrasing dreamily musical. José Martin scampers through the George Sinclair variation, full of prancing references to his character's dog. The tiny Roberta Marquez suits the child role of Dorabella, but she wanders from the music. Edward Watson dashes at Troyte's virtuoso solo, and just makes it.

The evening ends with Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring, in its fierce Sidney Nolan designs. The dancers have glaring white faces, body tights coloured with hand prints. The backcloths are scribbled in deep earth colours. MacMillan's choreography has unexpected use of jazz steps, thrust hands and pelvises. The corps are in ferocious form, churning through Stravinsky's rhythms. If anything, Tamara Rojo's Chosen Maiden has too much personality. This is a clear, athletic performance, but there's a languishing emphasis to some steps.

Mikhail Agrest conducted an orchestra with plenty of bite and texture.

In rep to 16 April (020-7304 4000)

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