Turbo-powered moves that will leave you breathless

Stephen Petronio | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Royal Ballet | Royal Opera House, London Universal Ballet | Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture

Fans of Stephen Petronio in his Michael Clark days would be amazed to see him now. Back in 1994 the two shaven-headed iconoclasts - lovers for a time - were dedicated purveyors of shock. Physically exquisite, classical of line and demeanour, they perpetrated acts on stage that most ballet-goers didn't even know the words for. Now 44, Petronio is still sleekly beautiful and magnetically watchable, but the dance experiments he conducts through his New York-based company of eight seem to have crystallised into something less convoluted, more dynamically interesting, and almost safe to take your mother to.

Fans of Stephen Petronio in his Michael Clark days would be amazed to see him now. Back in 1994 the two shaven-headed iconoclasts - lovers for a time - were dedicated purveyors of shock. Physically exquisite, classical of line and demeanour, they perpetrated acts on stage that most ballet-goers didn't even know the words for. Now 44, Petronio is still sleekly beautiful and magnetically watchable, but the dance experiments he conducts through his New York-based company of eight seem to have crystallised into something less convoluted, more dynamically interesting, and almost safe to take your mother to.

The thrust of Strange Attractors, the full-evening piece he brought to Dance Umbrella, derives from the creative tension you get when order teeters on the brink of chaos. Petronio's dances are never less than meticulously organised, yet the speed at which he flings his dancers through the steps has you gasping for breath on their behalf and bracing against collisions that never happen.

But first, Petronio visits the opposite extreme with a drowsy sequence in which the dancers - lined up as in a bad school photo - stay rooted to the spot throughout. The movement interest comes from their narcoleptic state of near-collapse, bodies crumpling and slumping, hands pawing vaguely like foetus limbs in fluid. Individuals are only stopped from falling over by being packed together. As David Bowie drones, "Imagination seems to help the feeling sli-i-i-de", you quite see how it might.

Petronio bowed out from the speedier parts of the programme, but any initial disappointment on this score was swept away by the impressive dancing of the troupe: the men especially, powering through barefoot solos in a ducking, swerving whoosh of energy, legs as well as arms employed as turbo flails. Where classical dance uses the arabesque to display harmony of line and balance, Petronio milks it for its backward kick.

For the final part, sculptor Anish Kapoor had designed two pendant semi-spheres of polished metal, gorgeous objects in themselves but also clever reflectors of the bodies all around. James Lavelle's jangly score made a friendly canvas for even speedier moves: dodging, sparring, floor-rolling, crab-scuttling, punctuated by languorous and sexy lifts. Picture a spread-eagled girl rolling with slow voluptuousness across a broad back.

From now until next summer, the Royal Ballet's programmes have been chosen for their significance in the long career of Sir Anthony Dowell, soon to retire as top dog. Unfortunately not all the works in which he made his mark have weathered as well as he has. One such is Antony Tudor's 1967 Shadowplay, a nebulous allegory inspired by Kipling's Jungle Book. In Saturday's mixed bill Carlos Acosta was the Mowgli figure - a role first danced by Dowell - who spends much of the one-act ballet sitting in Zen contemplation at the base of a twisted tree, while twitching monkey creatures swing from ropes around him. On the arrival of minxy Tamara Rojo, wearing a mini Javanese temple on her head, things hot up. But not for long. Acosta is soon back sitting on his tree, having developed an unfortunate simian itch. I think the ballet was trying to say something about nature, nurture, and human consciousness - but so dimly that you gave up trying to read it.

Surely Michael Corder could have come up with a more inspiring title for his new ballet than Dance Variations? But that, alas, was all they were: vapid doodlings with traditional steps. Pity Darcey Bussell - all that technique and nowhere to put it! But she smiled, and pirouetted, and displayed her limbs very prettily. And so did all the others. But classical dance has to be about more than this. It took Frederick Ashton, as usual, to show just what. I've raved about his Marguerite and Armand before: concentrated drama; technicalities subsumed into feeling; wild, heady stuff. Suffice to say that in the care of Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche, it just gets better.

The Moonies came to town last week - or, more correctly, Korea's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which sounds like a government department but is in fact a venture of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who has accumulated sufficient surplus from his weddings business to fund two dance schools and an international company of 70. The dancers themselves have no religious affiliation - all except the ghostly Julia Moon, who danced Giselle in the opening programme with the glacial assurance of a woman who - in real life - married her husband after his death in a car crash.

The stars of Thursday's Don Quixote were suitably sparkier - Eun-Sun Jun's Kitri shot on to the stage at each entrance like a cork from a bottle - but I was still left puzzling why modern Koreans should want to fashion themselves so precisely on a mould made in 19th-century Russia. Ex-Kirov director Oleg Vinogradov, and several Petersburg colleagues, have dinned the Kirov style into these dancers' bodies (one shudders to think how). But they're not the Kirov and never can be. How much better to create an indigenous Korean ballet, using the old Chinese stories, and oriental influences. It could work.

Royal Ballet Mixed Bill: ROH, WC2 (020 7304 4000) Mon & 13 Nov

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