Dance: Super Cooper leaps to Scottish Ballet's aid

THERE'S NOTHING like a near-death experience for strengthening the will to live: Scottish Ballet can testify to that. Last summer, the Arts Council was on the point of pulling the plug on its life-support. Did Scotland really need its own ballet company? The Council thought not. The 30-year-old company put up a fight and so did its fans. Fifty thousand signatures and the dramatic resignation of the board and artistic director stayed the Council's hand; Birmingham Royal Ballet generously donated sets and costumes so that Scottish could put on a show at Christmas; and now the time has come for the company to prove itself hale and grant- worthy again. A redesigned revival of The Tales of Hoffmann looked just the ticket: great storyline, bursting with classical steps, and good fun to boot. But that's not all. Someone had the idea of revving up the cast list with the hottest male dancer in the West. Talk about taking courage from catastrophe. With Adam Cooper as guest star, the show could hardly fail.

But those who swooned over Cooper's feather-thighed antics in Adventures in Motion Pictures' Swan Lake do not get their idol on a plate. The only glimpse of that famously chunky flesh is in a 19th-century vision scene, in which Cooper appears as a Russian ballerino in a tiny mauve toga. That he survives this indignity, as well ageing over the course of three acts to end up a dispirited old drunk, is further proof of his powerful charisma and range. If his classical technique has lost a little of its Covent Garden polish, I'm not complaining. Ballet is crying out for dancers who can act, and Adam Cooper is the most compelling actor- dancer we have. In a work which demands the hero's almost constant presence over three acts, a prologue and epilogue, there's no one I'd rather watch for two hours solid.

That said, Hoffmann is a fine showcase for the company too. It was created in the early Seventies by Scottish Ballet's founder, the late Peter Darrell, and tailored precisely to the talents he had available then. As well as a heroic male, it calls for three first-class ballerinas, which the company no longer has. This is compensated for, to some extent, by the liveliness of the corps, who transform themselves with panache from rustic beer-swillers into the beau monde of a Watteau painting, and from celestial sylphs and swains into the kinky patrons of a Venetian whorehouse.

Freely adapting both the music and plot of Offenbach's opera, Darrell's ballet is almost three ballets in one. Hoffmann, an ageing roue gazing into his solitary pint, is persuaded to relate the stories of his three great amours - a catalogue of disasters, owing to the devilish interventions of a man called Lindorf (the saturnine Robert Hampton) who has plagued him all his life. First Hoffmann tells how in his youth he was tricked into courting a life-size doll. Cue a gloriously funny pas de deux in which the ardent lover tries but repeatedly fails to get his partner to gaze into his eyes. Being an articulated mannequin, she's set on autopilot, refuses to move her arms into anything approaching an embrace, and all but knocks Cooper senseless when his head gets in the way of her second- position port de bras. Junior soloist Ari Takahashi is as fresh and pretty and precise as the vindictive dollmaker could wish. And when he dismantles her limb by limb, the audience is just as surprised as poor deluded Hoffmann.

The second amorous adventure sees our hero taking piano lessons, making eyes at the tutor's daughter behind her father's back. It's at this point that John Lanchbery's clever remodelling of Offenbach's music comes into its own, with Hoffmann's inane piano tinklings veering towards lush waves of high Romanticism whenever he catches the girl's eye. The aural comedy is enhanced by the fact that Adam Cooper has taken the trouble to learn how to mime the notes properly at the keyboard. I was less convinced by the demise of the girlfriend, who supposedly dances herself to a heart attack at the instigation of a bogus doctor. Her dancing looked so sedate I'm surprised she was even puffed.

The lady-killer turns to God in old age, but unaccountably finds himself in a Venetian brothel at carnival time, tempted on all sides. Darrell has Hoffmann lose his soul and regain it rather too swiftly even within this contracted timescale, and it's asking a lot of a dancer to exorcise the devil with any degree of authority by brandishing a pair of tinsel whips as a makeshift crucifix. But Cooper brought off the melodrama with hair- bristling conviction.

With so much to enjoy in this production it would be easy to overlook its subtleties. Peter Farmer's gorgeous sets do more than whisk the tale through Paris, Munich and Venice. With their use of quaint cut-out forest bowers and swags they also underline the specific period origins of the tale. The real-life author ETA Hoffmann was of course the originator of the whole Romantic shebang, and seen in this light the pantomime machinations of the Lindorf character suggest a darker seam of psychology. He's the destructive alter ego of the hero himself, and Hoffmann's the idealist who blights all he touches, the universal man who colludes in his own downfall. It's the Romantic agony in a nutshell. And here lies the real achievement of Darrell's ballet, revived with care by acting artistic director Kenn Burke. After all the jokes and spectacle and lovely steps, he gives us something to think about on the way home.

'The Tales of Hoffman': Newcastle Theatre Royal (0191 232 2061), 21- 25 Apr; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), 5-9 May.

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