Sadler's Wells Sampled, Sadler's Wells <br/> Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London **** / ***

Audience and dance are perfect mix
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The Independent Culture

The best thing about Sadler's Wells Sampled was the sense of audience energy. This weekend of performances was something between dance tapas and a sneak preview. On each of three nights, the theatre showed six snatches of dance. Tickets were cheap; audiences large and keen.

Many of these artists - including dancers from American Ballet Theatre, the martial arts comedy Jump, English National Ballet and flamenco star Eva Yerbabuena - will appear later in the Sadler's Wells season. Others were giving one-off performances. The foyers were full of activity, too, with DJs and a range of virtual dances, some supported by PlayStation, the weekend's sponsor. Introductory dance workshops were held across the weekend, with every place taken.

The idea for this weekend came from Fall for Dance, the autumn festival held by New York's City Centre. Everyone at Sadler's Wells was keen to underline the link, as these two theatres started their own US/UK special relationship.

The programming was cleverly arranged. Besides mixing dance styles, the first night kept a balance between the frothy and the sober, with bursts of instantly accessible virtuosity. But the longer, less flashy numbers also held this audience's attention.

And the performances? Mixed, of course. The first night started with the Nemesis duet, created by Wayne McGregor for his company Random. The two dancers prowled about the stage, limbs suddenly twitching into fast, intricate shapes.

The most astonishing feats of the evening came from the Vagabond Crew, hip-hop dancers in costumes suggesting alien armour. They started on their knees, heads bowed, then built up to dashing headspins, hopping handstands, robotic slides.

Peace of Mind, created by tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, started with two women drumming as the dancers mooched on, moving into a fast, stomping style of tap. In Uprising, by the choreographer Hofesh Shechter, seven men stamped and stood. They pressed forwards, almost to the footlights, hoisting themselves into balances. Shechter's choreography is repetitive, with quiet patches, but Uprising was danced with commitment and attack.

The first night ended with Rambert Dance Company, sleek and cool in Michael Clark's Swamp. The leotard-clad dancers stalked into long-limbed poses, moving with clean poise.

Across town, as the orchestra plays the yearning Swan theme, Ivan Putrov's Prince looks up, as if seeing the birds fly overhead. The mood changes, from festivity to longing - or it would, if everyone else on stage didn't erupt in distracting bustle. The drunken tutor calls the Prince over for a chat, while tipsy cadets wrench crossbows from the palace guards. Tchaikovsky's score is calling us to the lake, to the swans, to the heart of the ballet. Anthony Dowell's Royal Ballet production doesn't listen.

Dowell's Swan Lake will be 20 years old this March. It has always been a popular production. This version promises a traditional text, plus opulent designs by Yolanda Sonnabend. The current run is sold out.

Between them, Dowell and Sonnabend have decided that their swan was hatched from a Fabergé egg. The sets are dominated by filigree and curlicues. The visual decoration is matched by the fussiness of the staging. There's a lot of acting going on, but how much of it is concerned with telling the story?

At its best, the Royal Ballet can make you overlook the commotion. In the last revival, the corps of swans had a collective poetry. They didn't reach those heights this time. At the first performance of this revival, the dancing was strong, neatly in unison, but missing that shared breath.

The Swan Queen was Roberta Marquez, a fine-boned, unpredictable dancer - dry or mannered in one role, suddenly lively in the next. But her dramatic force comes and goes, going altogether when it comes to the Black Swan.

Putrov, recently recovered from injury, is dancing with ease and elegance. Despite the production, he makes the flight of swans register.

Later performances may give this revival more energy. As it is, it isn't bad; it just isn't as good as it should be.

'Swan Lake' in rep to 27 February (020-7304 4000)

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