ANY MAJOR ballet company hoping to prosper into the next century needs to devote some of its energies to bringing on choreographic talent. For the Royal Ballet, whose lyrical English style springs directly from its tailor-made catalogue of Ashton and Macmillan, the task has a special urgency. Since the death of Kenneth Macmillan it has had no house choreographer, and no obvious successor in its sights. And even when a dancer from the ranks proves keen to flex some creative muscle, the pressures of filling the Opera House prevent experimentation. If trial means any chance of error, it's best done on a smaller scale.

Dance Bites, a two-week touring project which opened in High Wycombe on Monday, was designed to address this need. And there are benefits all round. Regional audiences get to see some of the com-pany's best dancers (this could easily have been a B-team effort, but it's not) plus a highly varied programme that judiciously mixes untried work with pieces that have already had some success in London. And, encouragingly, the works are short - bite-sized every one.

Emma Diamond's Signed in Red straddles the uneasy ground between classical ballet and American contemporary dance, conveying Diamond's own curious blend of frustration with, and nostalgia for, the ballet. As a graduate of the Royal Ballet School "with bad feet" who went on to dance for Merce Cunningham for six years, she homes in on aspects of classical technique that once clearly bugged her. Signed in Red makes almost a fetish of the pointe shoe. Four girls - dressed and vividly lit in traffic-light colours by the painter Allen Jones - move jerkily as if on little stilts, disconcertingly removed from terra firma. Four bare-chested boys, in billowing red trews, relish their own floor-bound muscularity. Drawn to and repelled by their partners like switched poles on a magnet, together they form stunningly colourful patterns across the stage. It is an engrossing and fascinating piece.

Less successful is Tom Sapsford's six-minute Odalisque, though the idea - of bringing to life Ingres' famous painting of the turbanned lady with the beautiful back - is a nice one. Kitty Percy's design recreates every last exquisite detail of the picture, but the subject, reclining on her dais, has an unfortunate dual personality. One half is the dancer Gillian Revie, the other the singer-poetess-composer Fabienne Audeoud, whose fulsome and rather flat contralto bludgeons the delicacy of everything else in the piece.

The most experienced of the choreographers is Ashley Page, whose thrillingly combative Fearful Symmetries is already a repertory hit. But in Sleeping with Audrey (whose title and tone are from a painting by Stephen Chambers) he reveals a talent for subtly intriguing narrative. This one reads like a modern short story, a tale of tangled lives told by suggestion in snatches. Orlando Gough's nervy score for strings, interlaced with an anonymous riddle-poem, errs just on the right side of bafflement to match Page's stageful of neurotic and suspicious individuals. Dancers come together, part and make new relationships with increasing anxiety. The specifics are left to the spectator to imagine, but we all recognise the tune. Sleeping with Audrey has that rare quality of continuing to work its business in the mind long after the dance is ended.

Star quality caps the bill in Page's gypsy pas de deux for Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov, followed by William Forsythe's furiously athletic Steptext, led by Deborah Bull. And there's even room - just - for classical prettiness in Christopher Wheeldon's conventional but highly accomplished ballroom waltz, Souvenir. In all, then, this is not so much a series of nibbles as a six-course meal.

`Dance Bites': Blackpool Grand Theatre (01253 28372), Mon & Tues; Bath Theatre Royal (01225 448844), Thurs-Sat.

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