Royal Ballet Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London<br/> National Beijing Opera Company of China, Sadler's Wells, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The prospect of Jimi Hendrix at Covent Garden brought an obliging flurry of headlines when plans for Christopher Bruce's new ballet were announced.

The prospect of Jimi Hendrix at Covent Garden brought an obliging flurry of headlines when plans for Christopher Bruce's new ballet were announced. Love-ins and dope-smoking are all very well in the plots of 19th-century ballets, but the rock'n'roll energies of a burned-out guitarist were feared too much for Royal Ballet audiences.

It would be nice to be able to report a Rite of Spring-style riot in the stalls. But to be dangerous rock music must be loud and it must be raw. And once the bare kilowattage of a Hendrix riff has been filtered through the recorded violin of Nigel Kennedy, the spark remains but its power is dimmed. Set the volume at a comfortable level, and the ballet Three Songs - Two Voices alarms no one at all.

A programme note claims the piece was informed by Hendrix's life, but any narrative traces in this half-hour ballet are wilfully obscured. Instead, he gives us a vast stripped-down stage filled with hyperactive hippies. Crowds of couples in Sergeant Pepper jackets clasp each other in frantic jives while swarms of hippy chicks in headbands and flappy flares do the funky chicken.

There is little sense of progression in the choreography, only random crowding and clearing, and even when the focus narrows to a core trio of couples - Tamara Rojo stoned and horizontal, Zenaida Yanowsky posing bendily as a Biba mannequin, or Deirdre Chapman slugging out a relationship with a macho Ric Cervera - the action looks stranded in a sea of space. Neither John B Read's moody lighting nor Marion Bruce's bold stripes of wall colour do enough to make a frame.

The irony is that the works flanking the Bruce commission - both created in the very era whose flavour Bruce is trying to catch - offer a masterclass in focus. Frederick Ashton's Dream, for all its pastiche prettiness, holds tight to geometric principles in the way it groups bodies, and bringing us in so close on Titania and Oberon's conciliatory duet that we almost hear the beating of their hearts. This illusion was helped on opening night by ravishing performances, Johan Kobborg delivering a pungently feral Oberon and Alina Cojocaru a definitive Titania, elfin, fierce and wild. Trust Ashton to find a way of envisioning the existence of fairy sex.

I abandoned my stalls seat for the balcony to watch Kenneth MacMillan's Rite of Spring - and what a revelation! Those shuffling snakelines on Sydney Nolan's desert floor, the weird, animalistic crouchings, the synchronised swimming, all leapt from the stage with renewed vigour and purpose. Suddenly I saw MacMillan's inspiration as Aboriginal prints, a flat patterning of primitive human society as viewed by an eagle. You miss half of that from the ground.

Cultural curiosity drew me to the UK debut of China's national company for Beijing Opera, a misleading title as it turns out since this opera is as much an occasion for circus and comedy as for drama and singing. Frankly, the music is tough on Western ears: where the Chinese hear agile melody, the novice hears scalded cats. But it also has spectacular flag work, tumbling, slapstick and exquisite gesture, and plot lines of a luridness to make Desperate Housewives blush. At first I regretted not seeing Suicide With a Golden Brick (Thursday's show). But Legend of the White Snake proved lively enough, a transformation story (sub-Swan Lake?) about a pregnant woman who is also a snake, and reverts to human form only when a quick-witted sister collapses a pagoda on her.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Triple Bill: in rep to 11 June, 020 7304 4000. Beijing Opera: Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000), Tue & Wed; Salisbury Festival (01722 320 333), Fri

Comments