Kim Brandstrup is a dance-maker whose time has come. That was the unequivocal message of the roar that greeted Rushes: Fragments of a Lost Story, his first commission for the main stage of Covent Garden and performed by the Royal Ballet. But like all his dances, its qualities don't shout at you. Rather, they creep up on you, like a shadow on a wall. Understated, monochrome, fragmented, full of flickering mystery, and set to an unused film score written by Prokofiev in 1936, Rushes sets out to capture the qualities of early cinema, using every available trick of the 21st-century stage.
The plot, such as it is, is Dostoevsky's, jotted as preparatory sketches for The Idiot. All we need know, though, is that a man is carnally obsessed with a woman who doesn't want him, while a second woman pines for him and is ignored. In the style of cinematic rushes, episodes are strung together as if still waiting for the editor's knife: we get the raw development of the first woman's rejection, the man's mounting frustration, which spills into violence, and the second woman's wan hopelessness, which eventually grows bold, without the narrative padding and smoothing of edges that would furnish a final cut. Each new fragment is flagged up by a projected countdown on the back wall. The scratchy qualities of old film stock are brilliantly suggested by some of the action happening behind screens of fine silver chain which give the supporting chorus of drab, Stalin-era crowds a misty, half-remembered look. Hitchcockian shadows, too, are used to effect.
Subtlety is key. And if at first it seems mad to use dancers famous for their wow factor – sunny Carlos Acosta depressed and introspective; dazzling Alina Cojocaru dour and meek – the restraint of their physical powers pays off. When it does burst through the cracks, it's lethal, not least in Acosta's climactic brute assault on a terrified, exhausted Laura Morera, and the impassioned final fragment when Cojocaru's thrilling extensions come into their own.
It is Prokofiev's music – originally scored for a film that Stalin vetoed – that proves the binding element, masterfully remodelled by Michael Berkeley. Composed at the same time as the score for Romeo and Juliet, it shares many of its features: the snatches of suddenly optimistic melody, the atmospheric build-up of harmonic crunches, a doomy restlessness. It is superb.
But it's difficult to recall the detail of Brandstrup's choreographywith the same clarity. His ultimate value is as a metteur-en-scène, which is why, although he's not an obvious choice to make work for a major ballet company, it was astute of the Royal to bring him on. In any case, the other two-thirds of the bill are stuffed with pure dance, most purely in Balanchine's Serenade. Even so soon after last month's visit of New York City Ballet (whose signature work this is), it's hard to fault the Royal on this showing, with its ice-blue ranks of female warriors, 17 pairs of feet flicking into first position with the precision-stealth of a single knife, and Lauren Cuthbertson giving the performance of her life, a wild mix of crisp speed and languorous stretch.
Homage to the Queen, a mostly lost Ashton ballet from 1953 that has been re-upholstered by other hands, is too camp and dated a project to get my vote. Grotesquely lavish with its giant swagged crown setting, its high-kicking mermaids and wedding-cake pyramids of tutu'd girls , it's like a posh version of The Royal Variety Show. Given that the Queen doesn't care for ballet, why should ballet toady to the Queen? Bring on the revolution, and make it quick.
To 14 May (020-7304 4000)