Ballet, as loved by beer-drinkers everywhere

DANCE

AT THE risk of raking over cold coals, it's worth noting that not everyone in the ballet world was glued to the box during The House. Some couldn't bear to watch. Christopher Gable, one-time star of the Royal Ballet, now the founding director of Northern Ballet Theatre, confessed it made him weep to see the resources lavished - "squandered" was his word - on costumes and sets. He claims the cost of just one tutu at the Royal could have kitted out an entire production for his Halifax-based company. And that may be no exaggeration. NBT receives the least public funding of all our national ballet companies, owing its life for the past four years to transfusions of cash from BT and its own youthful enthusiasm.

But does he protest too much? The fact that NBT's new production of Don Quixote has had to recycle designs from a previous show becomes an irrelevance in the face of the sheer quality and scale of the enterprise. Not content simply to primp up the company's 1991 production, Gable and his co-choreographer Michael Barrett- Pink have reworked almost the entire three-act ballet. They have created a new scenario much closer to Cervantes' novel, and added swathes of glorious new dances, the most daring of which give NBT's keen-edged dancers an almost dangerous glitter.

Just two of Petipa's original set-pieces are left intact: the Don's shimmering dream of Dulcinea, a famous showcase of classical technique, and the lavish final grand pas de deux of the matador and his paramour. Both sequences anchor the production firmly to its 19th- century base, and to Ludwig Minkus's blisteringly sunny score - what Sullivan might have produced if he'd gone to the Costa Brava.

The overall product of NBT's innovations is not just exhilarating classical dance, but great all-round entertainment. This is the sort of show that gives credence to NBT's claim that its fans include a growing number of the beer-drinking fraternity. (After the third visit, apparently, they stop saying it's only the wife that likes it.) For this is ballet that works as popular theatre; and this Don Q is a buffo ballet that for once produces real comedy.

The antics of the dogged ser- vant and the dreamy, moth-eaten knight - both, as in Petipa's original, largely mimed roles - have from first to last a direct appeal to the audience's laugh lines. And when, in the final act, Jeremy Kerridge's barrel-shaped Sancho Panza takes to the dance floor (to the Don's mortification) along with a clutch of giggling serving girls, his twinkle-toed parody of balletic fireworks - ending in an ignominious belly-flop - seems like a delicious bonus.

The beauty of this ballet for a democratic company like NBT is that each episode of the story asks for a fresh cast of principals, as well as a kaleidoscope of theatrical effects: a gypsy camp hit by a dust storm, a mad romp on a giant wooden horse, and a string of dramatic fights with hooded monks, gypsy kings and a knight armoured in mirrors. There is a prettily tattered windmill backing Tim Goodchild's fabric cut-work set, but in a neat dodge of the audience's expectation, the Don doesn't tilt at it once.

There are fine performances throughout. Denis Malinkine flings himself thrillingly into the role of the reckless Basilio, whose skill in romancing Kit-ri (a darkly flashing Lorena Vidal) amusingly outstrips his professional skill as a barber. One customer, mopping a visibly bleeding neck, demands his money back or a fight. The gypsy brawl finds a sexy balance of glamour and menace, and the broad comedy of the final act - when the Moorish serving girls lift their veils to reveal the result of a terrible curse (beards) - still manages to leave room for pathos.

Buffooning is never allowed to swamp our sympathy for Luc Jacob's wistful Don, ridiculous as he is in his ill-placed attempts at gallantry. And when finally forced to confront his own foolishness in the mirrored shield of the vanquishing knight, he simply wanders off stage, dazed and dismal. With the sparkling grand finale still in full swing, the audience's hearts exist with him. It is all most delicately done.

Northern Ballet Theatre is offering a great night out. It's surely not too much to hope for more money in their purse, and, perhaps, one day, draught bitter at the bar.

`Don Quixote': Sheffield Lyceum (0114 276 9922), 16-20 April; Woking New Victoria Theatre (01483 761144), 23-27 April.

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