Dance: A rather rude awakening

Sleeping Beauty Buxton Opera House
The small theatres of Britain have good reason to be grateful to Harold King. His London City Ballet developed a loyal audience and the re-launched City Ballet of London's full house in Dartford last Friday was proof of that following. Finance has always been a problem. Not trendy like the contemporary dance outfits, yet lacking the clout of the major ballet companies, King has tended to fall between two stools. The present tour of Sleeping Beauty has only been made possible by business sponsorship and generous individual gifts. Unfortunately, this passionate energy and commitment has been harnessed to a production unworthy of such noble efforts.

The curtain goes up and the familiar furious chords of Tchaikovsky's overture accompany King Florestan XXIV as he paces back and forth in front of a gauze curtain. Behind it his beloved queen is visibly enduring the final stages of - wait for it - a difficult labour. The score (ably conducted by Daryl Griffith who works wonders with scaled-down orchestras) cries out pathetically for Petipa, whose steps remain deeply encoded in every note of the score. Instead we get Michael Rolnick who, in his first full- length ballet, takes on Tchaikovsky and loses. In spades.

And now a few kind words. David Blight's designs are largely successful and conjure a fantasy world in which Imperial Russia has somehow endured into the jazz age. Although the Fairy's frocks look like rejects from House of Eliot, the costumes improve considerably as the ballet progresses. The final act, with its chic mix of lipstick reds and tailcoats, allows the ballet to close on a stylistic high note. The set's sliding arrangement of mirrored French windows cunningly contrives to enlarge the stage and pad out the scant 22 dancers. The stylish pillars of frosted white glass are pleasingly reminiscent of Nicholas Georgiadis's designs for Kenneth MacMillan's Prince of the Pagodas.

Like MacMillan's Princess Rose, Rolnick's Aurora is under threat from male sexual aggression - drearily telegraphed by endless pelvic thrusts. The banality is partially redeemed by Friday's Aurora, the former ENB dancer Maria Teresa del Real, but Rolnick is simply not ready to take on Sleeping Beauty. In desperation, he strays deep into Bourne-ville with lots of arch gestures and feeble jokes. Matthew Bourne also took on a famous Tchaikovsky score when he created Nutcracker and Swan Lake for Adventures in Motion Pictures. However, although occasionally short of steps, Bourne was seldom short of ideas which somehow expanded to fill the gaps left when Petipa was taken away. Rolnicks's only discernible idea - Aurora's sexual repression - is a feeble cod-Freudian cliche that is a poor substitute for the very profound themes of death and renewal established so simply in Perrault's fairy tale.

Dartford didn't mind. "It's very unusual" observed one mature fan as she zeroed in on the bar. Let's hope that these loyal punters are still around when Harold King acquires a production that shows his hard-working dancers to greater advantage. King's current audience may not be complaining but it's surely his business to show them that they deserve better than this.

Buxton Opera House, 01298 72190. To 4 Oct

Louise Levene