Royal Ballet mixed bills stamped "Made in Britain" have been as rare as hen's teeth in recent years. And you don't have to be a xenophobe to see why that's not right. Now that the regime change is beginning to kick in, though, the outlook is shifting. Not that the Royal has suddenly turned up a stash of stunning new choreographic talent - we're still talking familiar names. But an evening of work by Ashton, MacMillan and David Bintley would at least appear to offer some continuity in the progress of "the English style". In theory, anyway.
What's disconcerting about this latest mixed package is that while the old Ashton and MacMillan works have a challenging edge, the big new piece - David Bintley's Les Saisons - is extravagantly retro. What's more, it's a soft-soaper. With its humalong score by Glazunov, girls dressed as snowflakes and icicles, and boys bursting from sepal-shaped cummerbunds like renegades from the Flower Fairy Alphabet, it looks and sounds like one massive appeal to the Past Times catalogue mailing list. Pretty, for sure (especially its tutus by Charles Quiggin). But let ballet get away with just pretty, and this century will be its last.
What saves this nostalgic blow-out is the vigour and aplomb of the dancers, given the quantity of steps they have to negotiate. I marvel at the personality Marianela Nunez sifts from her "snow" solo, peeping through imaginary drifts. Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, as "Printemps", rivet the gaze as ever with the illusion of being mutually enraptured. Waves of girls resembling poppies and cornflowers inject surges of energy that almost - but never quite - persuade your mind to go soft and soar with them.
David Bintley's intention was apparently to mimic the mannered and intricate French ballet style of 100 years ago, and he succeeds in as much as that the dances look hard to do. There is also a manic amount of smiling, so much that I feared for the soloists' facial muscles. Even when winter (stern, hard, glittery) solemnly banished the representative of summer (beaming, radiant, yellow), summer continued smiling fit to bust. If only my feelings were as gracious. But at least the orchestra enjoyed itself. Conductor Barry Wordsworth really went to town on Glazunov's glittery, skittery orchestration. It's not great music, but it is kaleidoscopic.
It was left to Bintley's choreographic forebears, in pieces respectively 55 and almost 40 years old, to remind us how ballet can challenge the head and the heart. Ashton's Scenes de Ballet may be an exercise in style, but it's also a thing of mystery with dangerously sharp edges. MacMillan's Song of the Earth (1965), meanwhile, is a well of imagery, deeply submerged. It's about life, and death, and the important things between - both grandly universal and almost unbearably intimate.
What would Lloyd Newson of DV8 make of this, I wonder. As one who once dismissed classical ballet as "flower arrangement", his response to the Bintley might be unprintable. Among the concerns in his own work is the perceived gulf between high taste and low taste, art and ent, and this forms the most coherent thread of his new promenade show at Tate Modern.
Given the entire echoing building to play with, Newson opts to take his audience on a dark, guided walk with cabaret turns from the floor of the Turbine Hall to the famous café at the top, with "taste" becoming more refined on each successive level. Herded into groups, heads clamped with earphones, we promenaders are naturally braced for confrontation. But Lloyd lets his public off pretty lightly.
On the ground floor we are confronted by a ghastly community singsong (there's no escape: you sing), a display of expletive, head-banging pogo-dance, and an extraordinary TV-type game. Here, a mixed group (some fat, some hairy, some very old) dressed in Folies Bergeres sparkly cutaways, compete to stay in the game by being the first to seize from the audience a variety of personal items. Their final test is to proffer "the most good-looking person you can find".
At his best, Newson works by sleight of hand, enjoying the confusion of feelings his situations stir. (Do you want to be picked? Perhaps not. But you sure as hell are going to crane your neck to see who is). He then sits back to let us observe our own ridiculousness. Further up the gallery, we find a nude 80-year-old posed decorously on a plinth. "Please Touch", says the notice in her hand. No one does, of course they don't. But it bothers us.
RB triple bill: ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), Tue & Thur. 'Living Costs': Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888), to ThurReuse content