Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells, London
The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House, London

Muscular swans, prancing sweets...it must be the start of a new dancing year

Ring out the old, ring in the new … but not just yet. Let’s hang on to the old for just a bit longer. For 10 months of the year, novelty is what the dance calendar feeds on. During the weeks that straddle the New Year, though, a dusting of conservatism settles on management and audiences as reliably as snow from a can.

Brave is the ballet company that dares to mothball its Nutcracker for a season. Birmingham Royal Ballet plans to air a new title next December, but is already posting promises that its Nutcracker will return in 2011. English Royal Ballet has edged in two other ballets alongside, but relies on its current Nutcracker to top up the company coffers, as it has for the past 55 years. Sadler’s Wells might at first sight appear to be bucking the trend, but no: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has become an equivalent seasonal staple in the 14 years since its creation – the dance show of choice for an otherwise ballet-proof crowd.

The challenge for dance companies, then, is not to wean audiences off the familiar option. The challenge is to keep these productions as fresh as if they were made yesterday, and technically sharper still. In the time since Bourne first gave the world the image of the six-packed, feather-thighed cob, an entire generation of young dancers has come of age, raised on and conditioned by the knowledge of that gender-switch, those muscular avian moves, those barefoot balances. To put it bluntly, Bourne’s flock in 2010 wobbles less than it did in 1995.

This latest revival has brought textual changes too: choreography has been tightened or added, most noticeably in the central set piece for the swans, which no longer feels too long for its material. The dancers’ oral sound effects – hissing, rushes of air to denote swiping wings – are much reduced, though the slap of bare soles still add insidious punctuation to Tchaikovsky's score.

That, too, shows evidence of a restraining hand. The tendency for any long-running show is for tempi to speed up, and in previous revivals this music has sounded scrambled. Under the baton of Benjamin Pope the night I went, sensible tempi reign once more. It remains a miracle that such a small band – two to a part – can make such a satisfying noise, thanks to sound playing as well as Rowland Lee's clever orchestration.

The work's other enduring strength is its encouragement of new casts, allowing fresh angles on individual roles that subtly tilt the story. Charlotte Broom brings a chilly composure to the Queen, her strong facial resemblance to both the Windsor daughters playing into the complexity of her reading. With her son (the fine Dominic North) she's a mother incapable of giving the cuddle he craves; with anything else in trousers she's available. The most transforming effect, though, comes from Jonathan Ollivier's Swan, restoring muscular bulk to the role, not to mention a solid classical train

ing that grants him the security of absolute stillness, even when balanced high on the ball of one foot.

For evidence that longevity doesn't equal fustiness, look no further than the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker, clocking up its 300-and-somethingth performance at Covent Garden. Again, as they say of well-preserved actresses, "she's had work", which in this case includes a tightening of plot links between the first and second halves, and the clarifying of a historic sub-plot which most productions have dropped, but which Sir Peter Wright makes the emotional linchpin here. It helps that Gary Avis is a superbly complex Herr Drosselmeyer, the toymaker who engineers the amorous magic that releases his soldier-nephew from a curse. For all its skipping children and nodding Chinamen, this isn't a childish Nutcracker. Bound up with adult themes of nostalgia and regret, it even throws in a whiff of innocence corrupted, even the supernatural. Take those carved life-size Christmas-tree angels: how else could they glide like that?

'Swan Lake': (0844 412 4300) to 24 Jan

Tips for 2010

By Jenny Gilbert

Danza Contemporanea De Cuba: Rarely seen outside Cuba, this sizzling company of 21 dancers celebrates its half-century with an eight-venue UK tour, launching in Newcastle on 23 Feb. Tour details: worldwidedanceUK.com

Mark Morris Dance Group: Gutsy, earthy, funny, sublime, L'Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, Morris's interpretation of Handel's setting of an ode by Milton, remains one of the most inspiring works of modern dance, 22 years on. Solo singers, chorus and orchestra courtesy of ENO. Coliseum (0844 871 0091), 14 to 17 Apr

La Fille Mal Gardee: The sunniest ballet in the Royal Ballet's rep returns with a crop of new talent in the lead roles. Watch out for the debut of Steven McRae, a fine comic actor in the making and a dancer with the dazzle of Astaire. ROH (020-7304 4000), 9 Mar to 28 Apr

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