Twenty-two positions in a fortnight stand

It's a sign of the times: after a successful run in Italy, Chicago's Joffrey Ballet are over here to perform to Prince. Just 4 U. By James Rampton

Pairs of impossibly elegant ballet-dancers in diaphanous white robes float across the stage like snow-flurries, before pirouetting immaculately and tossing each other in the air with the timing of a liquid-crystal chronometer. They are not, however, dancing Swan Lake, but Billboards, classical ballet choreographed to the music of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince.

With this show, the dancers from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago are running a dreadful risk of falling between two stools. Ballet traditionalists would choke on their interval Bollinger in the Crush Bar at the merest thought of Prince's unequivocally raunchy brand of rock music. Beery lads, meanwhile, would happily insert a tattooed fist into your face if you started wafting around on pointe and sending your partner flying through the air with the greatest of ease during the slow dance to "Purple Rain" down at your local disco. The potential culture clash could have ended up like that celebrated lager commercial where Paul Hogan's Aussie philistine is shocked by his first experience of ballet. "Strewth," he splutters into his pint as the principal dancer prances on stage, "that bloke's got no strides on!"

It is to the company's credit that the sight of a classically trained company dancing its way through "Baby, I'm a Star" and "Sometimes It Snows in April" is by no means an embarrassment. In fact, on the evidence of a recent performance during the Turin Festival of Dance, Billboards is an exhilarating show that combines the best extremity-tingling qualities of both ballet and Prince's music.

In front of an audience at the Teatro Regio, replete with Armani-clad Paolo Maldini-alikes, the company runs through four sections choreographed by Laura Dean, Peter Pucci, Charles Moulton and Margo Sappington. In "Trust", they criss-cross doing mid-air splits like balletic Red Devils. For "Baby, I'm a Star" and "Thunder", they indulge in bouts of formation hip-wagging and pelvis-thrusting that the Royal Purple Struttingness himself would be proud of.

As "Purple Rain" reaches more climaxes than Casanova, a solo dancer (Kim Sagami) in a gold lame body-stocking is paraded around above the heads of a phalanx of strapping blokes. "Slide" bears more than a passing resemblance to West Side Story, as tribes of youths flex their muscles and ogle passing girl-gangs.

While Prince croaks out the typical line "I'm gonna do it, baby, all the time" during "The Question of U" (Prince has a penchant for this sort of cute spelling previously perfected by Slade), couples gyrate and run their hands up and down each other in an unambiguously erotic fashion. By the reprise of "Willing and Able", the audience are a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' in a manner that quite possibly would be frowned upon at the Royal Opera House. It all amounts to the best possible demonstration of the phrase "sex on legs".

"It's quite erotic and quite hot," affirms Arnold Breman, executive director of the company. "But there were two nuns in the audience last night and they were clapping with the best of them. It's suggestive but, as far as I know, nobody's walked out."

Over breakfast the next morning, Sagami tells me she doesn't feel that her classical training has been wasted on decadent rock 'n' roll. "There will always be critics, but dance can appeal to all different kinds of people," she contends. "There's an audience for classical ballet, and we're not knocking that. We're just opening it out to a wider audience. People who come and see this might be so intrigued that they come and see something more classical."

Breman takes up the theme. "The dancers don't mind the rock 'n' roll, as long as there's a mixed repertoire. With any company, you don't want to do just one ballet. You don't want to do Romeo and Juliet every night."

The company was founded by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino 40 years ago. Since Joffrey's death in 1988, Arpino, a one-time coastguard, has been the artistic director and has helped the Joffrey earn a reputation as one of the most innovative companies in the States. Tomorrow they will be making their first appearance on these shores for more than 20 years.

Dressed in a blue, college baseball coach-style cardigan and white slacks, Arpino sits sipping coffee in a smart Turin hotel sitting-room the morning after the performance and recounts how he and His Paisley Park Highness first made beautiful music together. "We met through Pat Kennedy," Arpino recalls. "She persuaded him to see a gala show of ours in LA. Prince had never been to the ballet before, and he was rather intimidated. He's actually very shy.

"He sat there in a silk suit covered with gold chains just staring ahead," Arpino continues. "He was leaning on his gold-topped cane, mesmerised. I whispered, 'Prince, are you having a good time?', and he replied, 'Oh yes, Mr Arpino. I'm not coming to the dinner afterwards. I'm going straight home to write something for the Joffrey Ballet.' [As it turned out, a specially adapted version of "Thunder" and personally master-mixed tapes of all the other songs.] I thought, 'Sure, he just wants to get out of the dinner. He's probably got a hot date waiting for him.' But later I saw on CNN that he was writing a piece for the Joffrey Ballet, and then I knew it was true."

Prince - as anyone will know who saw his performance, with full supporting cast of bodyguards, at the Brit Awards a few years back - is not an artist ever in danger of not taking himself seriously enough. At first, Arpino had difficulty penetrating the layers of Prince's protection. "To get to him is more difficult than seeing the Pope," he laughs. "But once you become his buddy, he picks your brain. When he saw Billboards, he was astounded. He had no idea anyone could have this artistic approach to his music. He'd ask all sorts of questions like, 'How did you devise this?' The only stipulation he made was that he would authorise what music we could use. He has a whole cellar of unpublished material some of our choreographers would love to get their hands on, but he won't let us at it."

Prince has been to see Billboards four times. He has even given the company the ultimate accolade of bringing along his mother. Thomas Mulvihill, Arpino's assistant, thinks that the show's success stems from its fusion of the rock and classical forms. "Before you can dance Billboards," he reckons, "you have to know the classical vocabulary. You have to have the grounding, you can't just rap around. A non-classical dancer could not do Billboards."

Arpino concurs. "The whole secret is to make it look impromptu, like you're at the disco and just throwing it away. In reality, every single move of the hips is choreographed. Our aim is not to stagnate in any particular style or time, but to keep fresh while never, never, never negating tradition. You use tradition as a basis of strength. To be a great rock star you have to know the classical forms first. Then you can be free to break them. But you can only break them if you've known them in the first place."

Since first meeting him in 1991, Arpino has come to appreciate Prince's music in a whole new light. "He's a genius. Peter Sellars [the opera director] calls him the Mozart of our times and, in the way he rhythmically and structurally composes, he's certainly a composer of stature. He's underrated, but time will prove him, as it did with the Beatles."

That's as maybe. When Arpino first mooted the idea of a ballet danced to the music of Prince, however, critics were swift to throw metaphorical tomatoes at him. "Believe me," he smiles at the memory, "word had got around that I was bringing the Joffrey to a sad close. I was the worst offender of dance imaginable."

Over the years, as a principal dancer and choreographer, Arpino has grown pretty adept at wielding an argumentative shield to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous critics. "In America, ballet is a foreign word," he ruminates. "I'd mention ballet to my brothers and get hit with a meatball. They'd say, 'What are you doing running around in tights?' It was always a contest between the athlete and the artist."

Once into his stride, Arpino begins to sound like a fire-and-brimstone missionary. "I've always been questioned," he carries on, "but all I was interested in with Billboards was producing an evening of rock. The way most guys are in America, they're fearful of ballet and it's hard to make converts of them. There's this reticence about men going to a museum or an art gallery. They think it's effeminate. There's no way of inducing them to go from Michael Jordan [the basket-ball star] to ballet - unless it's something they recognise, like Prince. I want to say to them, 'It's OK, you won't ruin your macho image if you go to the ballet.' Billboards has brought in audiences that had never been to the ballet before. I was a con artist in my press interviews. I said, 'If you want to make out with your girl, just buy a ticket to Billboards.' Prince has been a prince to me."

Cynics will point out that he has certainly brought the company princely sums of money. Over the years, the Joffrey has been no stranger to financial difficulties. "Critics said about me, 'He's commercial, he's cheapened the whole art'," Arpino rejoins. "Yeah, but Billboards has sustained the company. Without it, there'd be no Joffrey."

And, Breman maintains, we should all be glad there is a Joffrey. "I'm not worried about snooty audiences," he asserts. "Why not introduce them to something new? Billboards is fun. It's rock on pointe. When was the last time you went to a ballet where you could clap along to Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet?"

n 'Billboards', performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, is at the Royal Festival Hall (0171-960 4204) from tomorrow to 8 Sept

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