Swan Lake, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Phoenix Dance Theatre 04, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Why choose Swan Lake? The name guarantees sales, but David Nixon doesn't seem to want anything else to do with it. His new production for Northern Ballet Theatre abuses the music and throws out the story. Even the swan maidens seem to be there on sufferance.

The ballet opens with the enraptured child Anthony finding his first swan corpse. Cut to the grown man, before his coming-of-age party. This is New England in 1912, so we get boys in white flannels on bicycles or splashing in the lake. The girls dither in Poiret-inspired frocks.

Dead-swan fixations aside, Anthony is confused. He's in love with his best friend Simon, but decides to marry Odilia instead. There might be a ballet in this: Nixon isn't a stylish choreographer, but he's precise about his characters' shifting emotions. His best efforts are sunk, however, when he drags Swan Lake into it: whenever the new plot gathers momentum, we switch to a garbled version of the original. Odilia finds her husband in a clinch with Simon. Cue Odette and her swan maidens.

Matthew Bourne is an obvious influence, but this has none of Bourne's logic, never mind his romanticism. It's hard to see these swans as anything but sales-friendly padding.

Having changed the plot and dropped most of the steps, Nixon and his arranger, John Longstaff, turned to the music. Tchaikovsky's score lacked "intimacy", so they dragged in chunks of other works, brutally chopping about the original.

You could say the same for the steps. NBT aren't a classical troupe, and the women lack experience and technique for even a cut-down Swan Lake. Keiko Amemori played Odette coquettishly - a bright idea that does nothing for the steps.

The dancers, especially the men, look better in the new choreography. Jonathan Ollivier is a heartfelt Anthony, projecting anguish in big, clean steps, and Christopher Hinton-Lewis is clean-cut and relaxed as Simon. Peculiar as this Swan Lake is, the company dance it ardently, without a shadow of disbelief.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Darshan Singh Bhuller's Phoenix Dance Theatre turn easily to pure dance in a mixed bill of new choreography. The dancers look athletic and assured throughout.

They're alert and combative in Henri Oguike's Signal, the best of these new works, which is danced to the demanding clatter of Japanese Taiko drumming. Oguike's steps keep the dancers in watchful, off-kilter poses: backs arched, knees bent, bodies twisted but lightly held. It's fast and odd but very contained, and the dancers' poise gives it a suggestion of ritual behaviour.

Oguike breaks away from this into great circling runs, a leading woman outpacing the others. Stopping dead, the dancers plant themselves with legs wide, then tilt the whole body sideways to lift and tap one foot. They exit one by one, a centre line shifting into a diagonal.

Oguike's structure isn't as satisfying as his floor patterns. The dance falls into sections, not always according to contrasts in the music. But this is distinctive movement, boldly danced.

Rui Horta's Can You See Me is an attention-seeking piece based on Jimi Hendrix songs. Tiia Ourila swaggers forwards, pulling at shirt and waistband. Errol White takes off his socks. Yann Seabra and Lisa Welham dance an embarrassed duet. He kneels, she sits hugging her knees. There's a nice moment when they fidget in unison, then it's back to pointless activity. Phoenix dancers spent a month working with Horta in Portugal, and they disorder their clothing with force and conviction.

Bhuller's Source 2 starts with the rattle of rainmakers and goes on to yoga balances. It's a stretchy duet for Seabra and Welham, all arching backs and juicy recoils. A Gyorgy Kurtag quartet plays while a screen shows Anthony Crickmay's photographs. A final contented embrace comes as a surprise: this is too meditative to be a romantic number, though both dancers are discreetly naked for the last section. Bhuller's serene detachment lacks intensity, but the piece is warmly danced.

Maresa von Stockert's polystrene dreams concerns oppression and daydreams in a toy factory. A portentous snatch of Also Sprach Zarathustra introduces a bossy management voiceover insisting that the toys mustn't be too hardwearing. The production line starts to daydream, drifting from the tables into dances, but keeps being called back to its toy cars and baby dolls.

polystyrene dreams needs tightening. There are nice details: couples waltzing in their office swivel chairs, a recalcitrant worker folded up and packed in bubble wrap. But the production line repeats need snappier rhythm; the voice- over's jokes could be much drier. Still, the dancers have fun with von Stockert's props and ideas, cutting between robotic precision and the drifting movements of the daydreams.

Northern Ballet Theatre touring to 19 June (www.nbt.co.uk); Phoenix Dance touring to 29 May (www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk)