Dance: An elegant waltz, straight into the casualty ward

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If the entire company of Royal Ballet dancers had twisted their ankles last week, there would have been some comfort in knowing that the show could have gone on - as a very fine concert. Such is the appeal of the four-ballet Ravel Programme chosen to open the Royal's season, its last before Covent Garden closes for rebuilding. Yet the programme also gives clues as to why Ravel - despite being in the right place (Paris) at the right time (the 1910s to the 1930s) - never became ballet's muse in the way that Stravinsky did.

La Valse proved almost too wispily evanescent to support a performance in flesh and blood. Ravel conceived it as "the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel", and Frederick Ashton's treatment of 1958 aims for a kind of high-class 19th-century rave, gathering momentum to a point of intoxication. The curtain rises on banks of candelabra glittering darkly, and a throng of couples in tulle and tails poised ... for what? As soon as they move the illusion is lost, and you notice the cramped floor, the fiddly little steps, and a strange ducking movement by the girls which is the nearest anyone gets to a swoon. Four of the six principals on Friday were replacements on grounds of injury or pregnancy. Risky business, waltzing.

The young British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was on steadier ground with his new pas de deux, Pavane pour une infante defunte. Ignoring the deceased Spanish princess of the title, he imagines Darcy Bussell as the embodiment of an elusive perfume - very period, very Ravel. On the first limpid strains of that famous melody, Bussell emerges, shimmering on point, from a huge, drooping arum lily (designed by Bob Crowley), to be caught by Jonathon Cope and unfurled from her oyster satin sheath. The steps themselves do not break new ground - exploiting Bussell's luminous froideur in unhurried sequences of arabesques and jetes - but their perfect fusion with the music and design, overlaid by restrained eroticism, conspire to make a small masterpiece.

A dose of sublime bad taste breaks the spell with Kenneth MacMillan's La Fin du Jour set to Ravel's piano concerto in G. Decked out in ludicrous Thirties fashions - men in cerise and apricot golf-kits, their women with mauve-tinted perms - the dance matches the music's modernist impulses in larky scenes depicting a lifestyle soon to be swept away by the War. The men gamely offer themselves to be used as stepladders, swingboats and pieces of furniture. But there is a hint that not all fun was innocent when Leanne Benjamin in a swimsuit lowers her goggles and gives her female friend a suggestive push towards the wings as the long day draws to a close.

The fourth piece, Daphnis and Chloe, represents Ravel's single ill-fated involvement with the Ballets Russes around 1910. Ashton's version was created in the Fifties and revived in 1994 with sun-scorched new designs. Notable are Adam Cooper's ruffian (impossible to see him in wicked mode now without seeing the sneer of his Black Swan), and Benazir Hussein's seductress. Can that simulated orgasm with her legs wrapped around Daphnis's waist really be what Margot Fonteyn danced in 1951? Sarah Wildor makes a disturbingly convincing Chloe - disturbing because her brutal abduction and near-rape by Irek Mukhamedov's pirate chief now seem rather close to the bone as picturesque entertainment. With Balkan and other atrocities fresh in our minds, perhaps it's time to put this appalling scene in mothballs.

A world away from the Opera House, in a "Meet the Artist" session at the Purcell Room on Monday, Javier de Frutos was citing vulnerability as the reason for doing what he does: dance in the nude. Don't get me wrong: this is no shadowy, arty, semi-disclosed nudity. It's a man without his clothes on. Full frontal, point blank. For the first five minutes of his latest work, Transatlantic, an oblique account of his early experiences in America, Frutos plods in a circle with bottom protruding and dysfunctional flat feet. What we hear is the brassy overture to Styne and Sondheim's musical Gypsy, "Yes, Everything's Coming Up Roses ... " Think irony, think Gay icons, think, this man is getting something out of his system but what can it possibly mean to me? There is humour - even slapstick - when Frutos bends over and moons during a silly song about a cow talking. But most of his contortions draw a blank. What rang most true was Ethel Merman belting out "You Gotta Get a Gimmick (If you Want to Get Ahead)". Enough said.