Russell Maliphant, Sadler's Wells, London
Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

An earlier hit is diminished by being extended, while a modern classic grows in stature

What do you do when you've made a thing of absolute perfection, and are asked to make it bigger? You cook a stew, say, with a spot-on balance of depth and piquancy. Then four more people come to dinner. You extend the ingredients, and the dish is compromised.

This time last year, for a bill to mark the centenary of the Ballets Russes, Russell Maliphant choreographed a 15-minute solo that channelled the spirit of Nijinsky, the enigmatic star who was widely claimed as the world's greatest dancer. The piece was spell- binding, complete, and unimprovable.

Now AfterLight has returned as a full evening piece – if you can call 60 minutes a full evening – and for all its undeniable quality, the experience is watered down. On a dark stage picked out in a thread of light, the slight figure of Daniel Proietto, attired in a turban and red sports top, raises an arm and arches his back. It's a gesture you see repeated many times, its limpid, curling shape suggesting languor, narcissism and in-the-blood classical training all at once, a gesture that coils and torques and accelerates by degrees into a whirling vortex.

Those who know their Diaghilev will spot the reference to Nijinsky's eroticised gesture in Le spectre de la rose, perhaps also to his sketches, overlaid with pencilled swirls, and even to his incipient mental problems. Those without prior knowledge find themselves intoxicated by the obsessive spooling movement, and the spare orientalism of Satie's Gnossiennes for solo piano. In the course of the many silences, you could hear the communal holding of breath.

That spell is broken in the new sections that follow, though the clues keep coming thick and fast. The two women in short white smocks who disport themselves behind a dappled screen may be the wood nymphs from Nijinsky's L'après-midi d'un faune, and when Proietto joins them, his prowling animal wariness clinches it. Later the trio dance behind animated puffs of cloud, like smoke rings from an opium pipe, and tangle in AD/DC couplings suggestive of the ballet Jeux, inspired by the shenanigans of the Bloomsbury set.

But for all these teeming ideas, AfterLight feels aimless. Andy Cowton's score has some nice moments, extending squibs of Satie's melody into new meandering formulations, but my mind wandered too. Just as touch-and-go is the use of broken light to sculpt space and dissolve outlines (credit to Michael Hulls and Jan Urbanowski), which sometimes works, and other times just looks murky.

The Royal Ballet launched its new season on Thursday with a solid, blue-chip investment. Some have pronounced the season unadventurous, and so it may turn out to be. But Dame Monica Mason knows her company's strengths, and in what must be her last year but one before retirement, she's damn well going to play to them.

Onegin, based on the story by Pushkin, wasn't made for the Royal Ballet but should have been, for the way it infuses movement with psychological significance and asks for tip-top acting skills. For the first five minutes you sit with sinking heart as 19th-century ladies mime conversation. But enter Onegin, the most loathsome character in all fiction, and John Cranko's ballet takes fire, abandoning naturalism for an expressionism so violent it makes your skin prickle.

It's a terrible story, really. Burnt-out misanthrope visits his friend's fiancée's home and causes emotional havoc, raising romantic hopes only to grind them under his foot, deliberately prompting a duel that proves fatal to his best friend. He's a fiend with a core of ice.

The brilliance of the Royal Ballet's reading, at least with Johan Kobborg in the title role, is that it humanises Onegin to even more insidious effect. In contrast Alina Cojocaru's Tatiana – at first pitiable, then silly, then distraught – ends in a blaze of moral strength. The work is ultimately a hymn to feminine resilience, with astonishing dancing along the way.

'Onegin' (020-7304 4000) to 25 Oct

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert signs up to the latest from New York iconoclast Stephen Petronio, opening Dance Umbrella

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