The Royal Ballet's latest programme sandwiches a baffling dramatic work between two displays of dancing. Kim Brandstrup's new work is called Rushes: Fragments of a Lost Story, so perhaps it's churlish to complain that this fractured story is confusing. The real trouble is that it lacks drama. Confrontations are blurred, emotions vague.
The big news of this production is the music. Brandstrup uses a recently rediscovered Prokofiev score, sketches for a film project that was never completed, arranged and expanded by composer Michael Berkeley. It sounds, well, like film music: some distinctive, astringent orchestration, some touches of melody, but mostly accompaniment.
Richard Hudson's designs give the ballet a movie background. Fringed curtains act as transparent screens. One sequence, full of angular grey patterns, suggests both a constructivist painting and the glowing shadows of a black and white film.
Brandstrup's dances are both thin and involved. Carlos Acosta seems to be torn between Laura Morera (red dress, clearly a Bad Girl) and Alina Cojocaru (a heroine in grey). That's a charismatic cast, but you wouldn't know it from this ballet. The steps wind and dither, barely touching the Prokofiev score. A corps of dancers walk through, watch and move on.
There's another fragmented story in Balanchine's Serenade, but this one is wholly satisfying. As soloists whirl out of the corps of women, they fall, dance with men, are parted. There are hints of fate, of death or transcendence. These moments flow out of the music, out of Balanchine's marvellous corps patterns.
If anything, the Royal Ballet dancers make too much of them, giving simple gestures an emphatic edge. Marianela Nuñez acts too much, but the sheer attack of her dancing is wonderful. She soars through buoyant jumps, dancing with abandon. Lauren Cuthbertson is speedy and bold, her footwork vivid in her turning solos. Mara Galeazzi is anonymous in the third solo role. The corps gain speed and authority as the ballet continues.
Homage to the Queen is a long parade of dances by four choreographers. It's episodic, with a queen, a court and a little ballet for each of four elements, all leading up to a camp royalist tableau. Momentum is easily lost, particularly since the dancing is variable. Feet look fudgy in David Bintley's fiddly "Earth" section. Frederick Ashton's lovely "Air" pas de deux is let down by Alexandra Ansanelli, who lacks authority. Michael Corder's "Water" section sparkles, with clean dancing from all the principals. Barry Wordsworth's conducting makes the most of Malcolm Arnold's score, with loving attention to its lyrical sections.
Shift, by the aerialist company Gravity & Levity, is a nice idea that doesn't quite come off. Lindsey Butcher has commissioned three works from different choreographers, all showing the underpinnings of aerial dancing. You don't just see the dancers pulled off the ground, you see them scurrying about with sandbags and wires, pulling the practical set into new patterns. Though performances are fresh and appealing, the idea wears thin.
Charlotte Vincent's section works best, with the dancers squabbling as they set to work. Dancer Guy Adams fusses around, pulling ropes too quickly, until the other dancers shout at him to be careful. "It's expensive, that stuff," complains artistic director Butcher. "We don't get much funding... and some of it's borrowed from other companies." The quarrels are wittily observed, woven into the movement, with dancers bouncing on ropes or scrambling out of tricky predicaments.
Charles Linehan sets Butcher swinging in lyrical circles, clinging to a plank. The setup takes time, but there is a payoff. I had lost patience by the time we reached the final sequence, by Stomp co-creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas. With a cat's-cradle of ropes, the cast swing or drop planks and sandbags to make rhythmic patterns. It takes for ever to get all the props in place, and then the plodding rhythms just aren't worth it.
Tours to 14 May (www.gravity-levity.net)