The Dream/ Song of the Earth, Royal Opera House, London
Without Warning, Old Vic Tunnels, London

With dazzling effects, the show goes on without Polunin the wonder boy

If anyone had set out on Wednesday night feeling short-changed by the absence of Sergei Polunin – scheduled to dance his first Oberon at Covent Garden but now in self-imposed exile – they had forgotten about it by the interval.

Yes, it would have been something to see the talented young Ukrainian in the role made almost 50 years ago for the young Anthony Dowell. In terms of sheer physical beauty (we'll overlook the tattoos), the 22-year-old was the closest any Royal Ballet principal had come to that gilded classical ideal. In terms of technique, in a role now legendary for its killer challenges, Polunin's debut was a lip-smacking prospect. In the event, though, his replacement, Steven McRae, gave him a run for his money. Also young but more slightly built, he seized the role and made it his: fiendishly fleet and pungently feral, if not quite wild.

The Dream, a 50-minute contraction of Shakespeare's play, is a fragile thing, delicate as cobweb. The cleverest idea of its choreographer Frederick Ashton was to set it, in design and gesture, in the period of Mendelssohn's music. This not only renders the piece ageless (who would guess it was from the 1960s?), and gives a Jane Austenish spin to the human lovers' tiffs, but invites reference to Romantic ballet's sylphs and wilis in the treatment of Shakespeare's fairies.

That said, no choreographer of the 1840s ever conceived of chorus-work so skitteringly fast. Dazzlingly, the feet of Titania's courtiers replicate the motion of moths' wings, though on first night the effect was sustained with effort, causing a back-row fairy to take a fairy tumble.

McRae's Oberon is not one for camp fairy-kingery. Sleek and severe, he streams like a swallow through sequential curling jumps, is testy with his capricious queen and indifferent to the humans' amorous problems. He sorts them out with his aphrodisiac magic, it seems, purely for the pleasure of wielding his power.

Valentino Zucchetti, the evening's Puck, had clearly been cast against a burlier master, but his hyper-nimbleness, throwing shapes in the air as sharp as a starry night, reduced any sense of mismatch. And no one would guess Alina Cojicaru's definitive Titania had been rehearsing for weeks with a different Oberon. The climax of her reconciliation with McRae, when she abandons herself to a fuss of ecstatic fluttering, may be the most erotic thing ever seen on that stage.

The other half of the bill, also from the 1960s, is its opposite – ruminative where Ashton is frivolous, stark where Ashton is pretty. Song of the Earth was Darcey Bussell's swansong when she retired five years ago. "That ballet says it all," said director Monica Mason, and she was right. Set by Kenneth MacMillan to music written by Mahler after the death of his daughter, it's as much about life as it is about loss. Those people who think you need technical knowhow to look at ballet could do worse than expose themselves to this pure shape- and pattern-making.

As in The Dream, at the centre is a trio: the Man (Rupert Pennefather), Woman (Tamara Rojo) and the shadowy Messenger (Carlos Acosta) – an envoy of death, but also a companion and guide. While dance and music both express the inevitability of his embrace, they also promise renewal.

The piece is full of moments you want to freeze and revisit. One such is when Rojo, standing isolated and small, leans forward like a reed in the wind – stillness as a gesture of ardent longing – then rises on her points with the swell of the orchestra and glides, in widening circles on rippling feet, as if unwinding from this mortal coil.

Without Warning ought by rights to leave your head brimming with dark thoughts, but it doesn't. Brian Keenan's book An Evil Cradling, about his four-year incarceration by terrorists in Beirut, is the spur to this project by choreographer Lizzi Kew Ross. At one point, the abducted heating engineer describes how he ventures a little dance in his cell, conjuring music from the rumbling of a vent – it's an invitation of sorts to a choreographer.

Without Warning's ambulant audience also get a chance to experience a novel venue – the cavernous tunnels under Waterloo Station. The lofty, rimmed-brick arches make a superb backdrop and acoustic. But the foreground shrieking, moaning, sidling along walls and contact-improv wrestling is random to the point of irritation. A generation has grown up since Keenan's dehumanising trials. It would surely better to give them information than this improvised horror. Stay at home and read the book.

RB double bill: ROH (020-7304 4000) to 5 Mar. 'Without Warning': Old Vic Tunnels (0844 871 7628) to Sat

Next Week

Jenny Gilbert seeks heat at Sadler's Wells's flamenco festival

Dance Choice

Richard Alston Dance Company premieres Alston's A Ceremony of Carols, as part of a triple bill. Danced to Britten's 1942 masterpiece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices and harp, it will be sung live by Canterbury Cathedral Choir. (Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Wed & Thu; Sadler's Wells, London 29 Feb & 1 Mar).

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?