The Royal Ballet's latest bill of fare, its last before it vacates Covent Garden, was to have included a double treat of Balanchine. But an eleventh-hour kerfuffle over performing rights for Apollo forced an act of dignified defiance from a company which has clearly decided it will not be pushed around.

The Royal has done this 1920s work before, apparently with the blessing of the hard-to-please Balanchine Trust, set up in America to police "correct" interpretation of the master's steps. But this time the Trust insisted on vetting the cast at the dress rehearsal. Sorry, that's not on, said the Royal Ballet, and promptly dropped the Balanchine in favour of MacMillan's The Judas Tree, which features Irek Mukhamedov in one of his strongest and sexiest roles.

It says something for the ticket-holders' adventurousness that they mostly turned down the company's offer of a refund. For instead of a meditation on the Apollonian muses they got gang rape and murder on a building site. I am not among those who find MacMillan's brutal ballet misogynous or vile. He may only partly succeed in making a case for universal culpability in a world of slippery sexual standards - and this is the only possible justification for the shocking scenario. Yet The Judas Tree remains a compelling example of the suggestive power of dance.

I doubt the same will ever be said of Glen Tetley's Amores, which had its world premiere in Wednesday's triple bill, This large expanse of pastel- washed flannel offers another reason why the Royal Ballet should be wary of Americans bearing long pedigrees. Tetley, at 72, is the world's grand old man of ballet, unstintingly prolific. According to the programme he has choreographed over 70 ballets in the last five years. Is this possible? Perhaps he overdoes it, which is the only way to account for the yawning chasms of uninventiveness in Amores -- the longest 30 minutes I have, spent in the Opera House.

What's it all about? One can only guess that the title bears some relation to Ovid's love poem. The curtain lifts on a rather pretty relief map of what might be North America, and eventually three couples, clad in glistening spray-on unitards in the sort of pastel shades which a Dulux colour card would call "Spring Whisper". Every movement is sweeping, grand and often in slow motion, as the girls are lifted in floaty arcs the entire width of the stage, opening and closing their legs like fish mouthing underwater. Quick mode includes some sassy striding about, some fairly standard leaping from the boys, and that stagey old cliche, the ecstatic run: head flung back, breastbone raised, arms held wide. For the first five minutes I thought some subtle strand of irony was at play. Then I remembered Americans don't do irony.

The score - three end-to-end orchestral pieces by Michael Torke - prompts even more incredulous head-shaking. It's just terrible - tacky, nationalistic twaddle better suited to accompanying a travelogue on the Grand Canyon. I pitied the dancers. Watching six of the Royal Ballet's finest (only Darcey Bussell with her long limbs was actually enhanced by the choreography) you suddenly saw them not as artists but as slaves. Slaves, in this instance, to one man's pappy vision of romantic love.

In a neat piece of symmetry, it's Balanchine who restores our faith in plotless dance. (The 1951 Symphony in C is one of the few of his ballets not controlled by the Trust.) Wednesday's audience gasped when the curtain rose on scores of brilliant white tutus against a backsheet of dazzling blue. What follows is an academic exercise informed by Mr B's wit. Rows of pristine dancers work through the classical positions like clockwork dolls, matching the clever, knowing, almost comic recurrence of Bizet's pefect cadences: arms prick imaginary bubbles at the apex of an oboe tune, flexed knees mimic the oompah of a double bass. This is dance for dance's sake - an unalloyed joy.

Northern Ballet Theatre is 10 years old under the directorship of Christopher Gable, and for its anniversary tour has revived its landmark production of Romeo and Juliet. This was the first piece to embody Gable's conviction that fine classical dance combined with proper acting can make a vivid experience for even a first-time audience. And it does, to judge by the diminuendo of sweet-wrapper rustlings in Eastbourne, which gave way to tense attention and finally wild cheers. This is no pale parallel of Shakespeare's plot but a concentration of the play itself, rich in images direct from the text, and replete with the kind of sub-plot complexities that are nominally confined to straight drama.

No suspension of disbelief is needed. Romeo and his pals (all three fit to swoon for) are believable public schoolboys out on a bender, their taunts of Capulet henchmen in the street a display of natural exuberance. The evil springs from the excesses of the Capulets' appetites, potently defined in Lady C's incestuous dalliance with Tybalt, and Massimo Morricone's choreography for the ball, where Prokofiev's famous striding theme inspires a menacing dance with coshes and clenched fists. Likewise, the lovers love for real: their heart-stopping balcony duet is not only a thing of aching beauty but of fevered adolescent passion. Erotic dance motifs pre- figure the tragedy to come: a hand brushing a lover's lips, an arching back, a quivering foot. If this Romeo and Juliet is a manifesto for Gable's vision of dance-theatre, I'll buy it.

Royal Ballet triple bill: ROH, WC2 (0171 240 6000), Sat, 14 & 15 May. NBT's 'Romeo & Juliet' is next at the Palace Theatre, Manchester (0161 242 2503), 1-5 July.

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