the critics
THE ancient Greeks loved a good argument. Who was the true patron deity of the arts: Apollo - cool, cerebral and restrained - or Dionysus, heady, red-blooded, heart-on-sleeve? Modern audiences would probably plump for the latter. For Stravinsky and Balanchine the discovery of classical purity, through their work on the ballet Apollo in the late 1920s, was a turning point for both. Head wins over heart, less means more. Stravinsky pares down the orchestra to sonorous strings, Balanchine makes a ballet from philosophical abstraction. In all of 35 minutes all that happens is that the young god Apollo considers three muses, poetry, mime and dance, and chooses one. Severe and strange, it is a brave way to head a mixed bill, but the performance given by the Royal Ballet on Thursday had a monumental grandeur that almost eclipsed what followed.

The abrupt departure of Zoltn Solymosi from the company the week before (he's clearly a Dionysian) deprived the audience of god-like looks in the male lead, but his replacement, Jonathan Cope, went beyond his customary leggy elegance to find a stern beauty in stillness. Whether threading across the stage with the three muses like figures on a vase, supporting the muse of dance (Darcey Bussell) on the flat of his back, or whirling his right arm in an attempt to strum the lyre, he is convincing to the point of sublimity. The role of Terpsichore gives Bussell a prime opportunity to show her famous classical line - that amazing extension that makes legs at six o'clock and torso at 20 past look like an easy warm up at the barre.

MacMillan's little crowd-pleaser Sideshow has not been seen since it was made for Seymour and Nureyev over 20 years ago. Here, Irek Mukhamedov is scarcely recognisable in toupee and droopy moustache as a hilariously bumptious fairground performer - though we'd know those buttocks and biceps anywhere. Miyako Yoshida plays his sparkly ballerina sidekick, and their elbowing for the limelight and technical mishaps (tangled arms, flailing legs and a narrow-miss concussion) make delightfully unforced humour.

Balanchine's searching Duo Concertant - as much a recital as a dance, with violinist and pianist on stage to perform Stravinsky's extended piece - adds more meat to the evening, and Ashley Page's Fearful Symmetries provides the large-scale thrill. Everything springs from John Adams's locomotive score, played immaculately by an orchestra remarkably unfazed by the inclusion of sampler and synthesiser. The sinister quality of Adams's thrumming harmonies is mirrored in the hordes of dark-clad dancers who form scurrying patterns across the full breadth and depth of the stage. Irek Mukhamedov is the pivot, a muscular torpedo in a sexy black gauze vest, his frenzied circling full of menace and foreboding, his rough treatment of female partners almost indecent. For a full half-hour music and dance hurtle on like an express train without a driver, going who knows where, but certainly to a dangerous place. Choreographer Page has a demon in him, and the Royal Ballet should feed it another big commission fast.

Such is the nature of both ballet and contemporary dance that audiences rarely question how the work is made (some people think it's improvised) and at what human and financial cost. We are used to low-budget dance in the big black space that is The Place, but the work premiered there last week set new standards of shoestringdom. Charles Linehan and his newish group Scalectrix were a highlight of the Spring Loaded season, and here repeated their triumph, a dramatically lit piece called A New Ground, danced with striking gravity to Purcell's music for harpsichord, amplified to the limit of endurance.

On the strength of this, Linehan was awarded money to make a new work. Not quite enough money perhaps. Two Seasons is a perceptive study of summer and winter, given a beautifully detailed performance by two trios of dancers including Linehan himself. The set is two parallel strips of yellow paper which alarmingly crumple to the floor when summer is over; the subdued score is scritchy-scratchy synthesised, offering no structural support for the movement and precious little interest overall. The many intriguing - if low-key - choreographic ideas are rendered drab by dancers' clothes of almost monastic glumness. Austerity is not a fitting mode for dance. Let's feast our eyes and ears.

Royal Ballet mixed bill: Royal Opera Hse (0171 304 4000), continues Thurs.