Dance: More nourishment required

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Like a bird in a gilded cage, the Royal Ballet rarely ventures out of Covent Garden - unless for migrations overseas. But as for trogging up the M1, it's generally held that the schedules/budgets/sheer size of its productions don't allow. As a compromise, the company has taken to setting aside two weeks each spring to tour a programme of Dance Bites, nibbles of new, short ballets by young choreographers who are not yet ready to face the full glare of the Garden stage. The question is, should the regions be grateful for this? Just who is doing a favour to whom?

What the audience in High Wycombe plainly wanted was recognisable ballet and recognisable stars. Both were in short supply. There was Darcey Bussell on the poster, but where was she on Saturday afternoon? Adam Cooper was down to dance in the romantic pas de deux, but at the last minute (no reason given) he didn't, prompting groans from around the house. The piece, Christopher Wheeldon's setting of Ravel's Pavane, was danced ably enough by subs, but was staged perversely without its set, the giant arum lily that had supplied a languid, perfectly period image when the work premiered in London last year. Someone had presumably decided that it was too much trouble to load the thing into the lorry. After all, it was only High Wycombe.

Obscurity dogged the programme, and it was a long one. Seven works may sound like value for money, but once you'd sat through Cathy Marston's dreary Figure in Progress, set to lugubrious Shostakovitch and inspired by Giacometti stick-men, you felt they ought to give you some kind of cash-back for endurance. William Tuckett's quartet The Magpie's Tower looked a livelier prospect, but by the end of 24 minutes of its capering and flapping, its jokey mime and its ministry of silly walks, I hadn't much of a clue what it was about. Still, it offered the last chance to see Adam Cooper before he leaves the company, and some fine, stylish dancing from Zenaida Yanowsky, a girl with the face of Jean Shrimpton and fabulous legs who is woefully underused in standard repertoire because she happens to be tall. She and Cooper made a quirky pair of lovebirds in peculiar bonnets and grossly unflattering white tunics. I'd rather remember him as Romeo, I think.

The most intriguing contribution - ironically the one with the least ballet in it - was Room of Cooks by Ashley Page. Continuing Page's interest in the spare but psychologically loaded paintings of Stephen Chambers, this one sprang dangerously to life like a slice of film noir. Featuring a woman in a pinny, two men, a table and a meat cleaver, exactly what was going on mattered not. The point was that you could cut the dramatic tension with a knife. Unsettling too was Tom Sapsford's All Nighter, a rather too drawn-out evocation of rave culture complete with out-of-control chemical trips and sex in dark corners. It was exciting to see classical dancers give such vital, raw edge to their movement. I'm just not sure the audience of parents and daughters in Alice-bands saw it that way.

The one they loved was Matthew Hart's Cry Baby Kreisler, a send-up of the 19th-century musical virtuoso which had Jonathan Cope in a velvet tailcoat, skidding and flipping on and off a grand piano, and his muse, Sarah Wilder, emerging from inside it. When they finally called off the histrionics and put themselves to bed under the piano lid, it brought the house down. Too bad this wasn't a Royal Ballet commission at all, but a nugget picked up from elsewhere. It was everything "Dance Bites" should be - short, sharp and thoroughly entertaining.

Earlier we were privy to a showing of Meet Me in the Park, a half-hour piece created over the past year by 150 local schoolkids as part of the company's lively education programme. Full of fun and colour but irredeemably chaotic, it proved a number of things: chiefly that without a grounding in ballet technique it just ain't ballet. And also that it takes more than one poor choreographer to train little girls not to readjust their knickers on stage. Even so, the company will win more hearts this way than in years of obscure "Dance Bites".

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