Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London
Carlos Acosta: Premieres Plus, Coliseum, London

There's no touching the Mariinsky corps for uniformity, while principal Lopatkina demonstrates the art of maturing into a role

If a classical actor's career trajectory is a lifelong ascent from Romeo to Lear through a line of princes, then a classical ballerina's resembles a running jump at a high wall, followed by several decades of hanging on by her fingernails.

The career-defining roles have to be tackled by her early twenties. And where does she go from there?

Uliana Lopatkina was fast-tracked to the rank of principal dancer when she graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 1991, and has been dancing Swan Lake for what must feel like her entire life. Just as the 50th anniversary of the Mariinsky's first visit to Britain is, you suspect, more significant for us than for a company that can trace its ancestry to Catherine the Great, so a Lopatkina Swan Lake, these days, is more significant for its audience than it is for her.

There is a greater calculation in her performance than there used to be, an experienced campaigner's sense of what must be fully rendered, and what can be merely sketched. So although the limbs still drift into their final, exquisite shapes with the dreamlike softness of snow settling on invisible slopes, the effect is less ethereal, and has more of the voluptuary about it.

In the Adagio, as she collapses backwards on to thin air, there is something almost post-coital about the way her back curls around Siegfried's rescuing arm. Not so much innocence awaking into love, this is a swan maiden who is sick and tired of both parts of her job description. In her version of the fairy tale it is Daniil Korsuntsev's personable but painfully earthbound Siegfried who is the fantasy object.

Despite her predatory glamour, Lopatkina's black swan is, if anything, less worldly, more weird – a clockwork bird transforming all Odette's flowing lines into a series of bright, sharp snapshots. It is a brilliantly conceived characterisation, but you slightly miss the Lopatkina who had made fewer decisions about the role, and was making more discoveries.

Around her the corps de ballet, the most enduring glory of the Mariinsky, was just as definitive, a miracle of synchronisation so perfect that it looked like a special effect – as if one dancer were reflected endlessly in a hall of mirrors. Truly awesome, but perhaps more eerie than enchanting.

One career choice for virtuoso dancers of a certain age is to don the hair shirt of contemporary dance and "new ballet", and embark on what might be called anti-vanity projects. But if Carlos Acosta: Premieres Plus is anything to go by, life after the grands jetés is a parched and hopeless wasteland. The nine short, occasionally indistinguishable works – by choreographers including Russell Maliphant, Kim Brandstrup and Acosta himself – convey not one iota of joy, no hint that any of this might be a source of pleasure, for onlooker or performer.

Even Maliphant's Two, which was a one-woman firework display when Sylvie Guillem first performed it, becomes a muscle-flexing trials of Atlas in Acosta's lugubrious hands. Adding to the gloom, he and his co-star, Zenaida Yanowsky, put themselves through their angst-ridden contortions in cone after cone of stark white light, pinning them from above, until you can't tell whether it's a dance performance or an alien abduction. Personally, I was longing for the mother ship to come and take me long before the end.

Next Week:

Clifford Bishop sings along to the Song of the City with Akademi Dance

Dance Choice

Adam Cooper slips and slides to thrilling effect in Singin' in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre's deliciously soggy staging of the Hollywood musical. Cooper is aided by a terrific cast, Jonathan Church's zippy direction, and an indestructible score. Showstoppers include "Good Morning" and the title song (to 10 Sep).

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