DANCE : Enough swans for an ocean

Think of the most famous image of the most famous classical ballet, then double it, then triple it. Don't even try to count the tutus. When Derek Deane dreamt up English National Ballet's new Swan Lake, he could have been hallucinating in a hall of mirrors. Either that or made giddy by box-office predictions. His blown-up version of the Petipa/ Ivanov classic, which opened at the Albert Hall on Thursday, attempts to do for classical dance what Earl's Court did for opera. This is mass-market spectacle, ballet to boggle at, and, on its own terms, it works.

Let's not be snooty about this populist approach. Yes, Deane has acrobats waggling their legs in the air during the opening dance, he uses dry-ice by the tankerload, his Rothbart appears through a sulphurous crack in the floor (boo hiss), he even lights up the massive Albert Hall organ in throbbing turquoise, but whoever said art couldn't be fun?

Fitting a form designed to be viewed from the front into a big round hole (the half-acre arena) demands ingenuity, and Deane manages to make a virtue of some of these directional problems. A pas de quatre becomes a pas de douze, each quartet of dancers angling their moves to a different part of the hall. The famous cygnet dance doubles, adding extra spinning steps so that dancers can present themselves at 360 degrees. With so much space to play with, the big set-pieces are exhilaratingly expansive, beautifully done.

They have to be, for the dancing has to make its dramatic impact entirely without the help of scenery. Minimal attempts to set the festive village scene - a stall loaded with food set just in front of the orchestra's cello section - looked like something accidentally left behind by a WI jamboree.

Happily, Deane lets the white acts speak for themselves, bathed only in Patrick Woodroffe's simple design of bluish light. This is what the crowds are here for: dozens upon dozens of identical girls in identical white tutus, swans' feathers curling, Fonteyn-like, up over their ears and temples. ENB's regular production of this ballet has 22 swans. Here the flock is increased to 66, presenting a powdery vision of hundreds of perfectly angled limbs that would have done Busby Berkeley proud. Deane must take full credit for having drilled ENB's temporary intake to his famously exacting technical standards. This is no mean achievement.

Only problem is, the best place to appreciate these patterns would be from one of the acoustic saucers in the roof. From where I sat, my gaze was led along the six empty runways between the rows of dancers, and of them I got mostly rear views. The arabesque in ballet was designed to be seen en profil, given that the underside of a tutu has all the elegant appeal of the wrong end of a horse. Petipa's steps for these massed-swan sections (too famous to tamper with) don't allow for turning through degrees. This was one directional problem even Deane was not clever enough to solve.

More frustrating were the many times when the soloists were obscured, either by each other, or by the business of getting 120 other bodies on- or off-stage. I entirely missed Roberto Bolle's love-vow to his Odette (the brilliant Altynai Asylmuratova), because I saw only his manly back and nothing of her at all. Those in stalls C to F fared better at this point.

There is nothing new-fangled about arena ballet. Pavlova appeared in a Mexican bull-ring in the 1920s. By the Forties, Markova was staging Hollywood Bowl-style medleys over here. What's new is the nerve it takes to translate such a staple of proscenium theatre-art into the round. It can never be the full Swan Lake experience unless you play musical chairs. But it's an experience to be reckoned with, none the less.

Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to 11 Jun.

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