A load of old cape and bull


After the first leg of Ballet Madrid's first season over here, one thing is clear. Someone at the Spanish Embassy must have tipped them the wink that the Brits are hot for flamenco. For I cannot believe that the local audience for a company calling itself the community (comunidad) ballet of Madrid really turns out regularly to see dances that mimic every last, burned-out, cliche of touristic Spanish dance: females in shawls who huff and flounce, men who strut and smirk and preen, couples whose idea of a tense, emotional encounter is to prowl round each other like cape and bull. This is a foreigner's Spain. But to judge by the excited response at the Peacock Theatre this week, Victor Ullate is more than just the company's director, choreographer-in-chief, and head of its training school. He is also a very shrewd businessman.

You might think ballet and flamenco a rum kind of marriage, and I'm not sure that Ullate proves otherwise, but there are many distin- guished precedents for ball- etic mergers with Iberia. Think of Petipa's Don Quix- ote, or the Spanish dances in Act III of Swan Lake. But in such cases there's never any doubt we're watching ballet. The first piece in Ballet Madrid's all-Ullate programme, Ven que te tiente (literally, "come, let me hold you") treads a watery middle-ground between the two dance forms.

Straight arms swing free of the rounded port de bras of classical dance; extended legs supply elevation, not rhythm. It's weird to be hearing the anguished growl of flam- enco singer Carmen Linares at the same time as seeing dancers soaring in airy arcs like thistledown. Earth and air don't mix.

The ballet opens on a chap in a smart 1920s jacket walking about reading a book. He, I guessed, was the poet Lorca, who in real life spent a lot of time hanging around village squares notating Spanish folk songs. It might have helped to have given us the texts to them. The Spanish folk duly come on like the gangs in West Side Story - a wave of young hoodlums in singlets and tight trousers, fists clenched, hips thrust out ready for a fight, followed by a wave of girls flaunting their charms in fringed low-cut dresses, to trigger the action and act out the songs. It's all very picturesque, danced around a barrage of suspended scenery: a stone cottage com-plete with shrine and obligatory bead curtain. Some of the dancing is stunning, but the work as a whole does not rise above choreographic tourism, reducing the rough and gutsy original to a glossy postcard.

The next piece seemed to promise a more serious approach to Flamenco. Tras el Espejo ("Through the Mirror") is intended as a homage to Spain's most popular dancer ever, Carmen Amaya. Ballet Madrid's Rut Mir certainly looks sensational as she enters with imperious slowness in a dress of stiff white satin, her wondrously arched back reflected in a large cheval mirror behind.

But our awe is short-lived. Trailing behind her is what looks like a splurge of Mr Whippy ice-cream, which turns out to be a ruffled dress train, 40 feet long. The audience giggles, and it's downhill from then on. Mir steps out of her satin casing to reveal a catwoman leotard, and launches into a complicated floor routine (partly on all fours) which, though impressive in its lithe control of limbs and pelvic tilts in curious positions, wouldn't look amiss in a peep show.

How all this connects with a dance star of the 1940s I will never know, since the printed programme devoted six pages to a history of Madrid but offered not a word about the pieces.

Hearteningly, the full 22-strong company returns for the final piece, Jaleos, a thing of pure technique - brittle and brilliant. To a ticking, electronic score that seems to be timing each dancer's work-out like a stopwatch, dancers show off their immaculate schooling in synchronised sequences of elevated split-jumps and high-speed pirouettes. Ullate has drilled this handsome company to the nth degree. Perhaps this week's programme - which includes the work of other choreographers - will give that technique a more interesting context.

Peacock Theatre, WC2 (0171 314 8800), Mon-Sat.

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