First Night: Sex and death, Italian style

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Romeo and Juliet

Royal Ballet, Labatt's Apollo, Hammersmith

A year is a long time in the career of a thirtysomething dancer and Viviana Durante took quite a risk when she decided to take a year's sabbatical from the Royal Ballet. But she hasn't allowed herself to get out of condition and has kept her hand in, guest-starring as Giselle in Japan for pleasure (and profit). We caught a glimpse of her in a pas de deux at the Covent Garden Farewell Gala last May but Saturday's at the Apollo was her first three-act performance in Britain for over a year.

Her fans were delighted to see her and so was Irek Mukhamedov, whose regular partner she had been. Mukhamedov, who earned his spurs at the Bolshoi, looks at home in the Apollo and can project with ease into the barn-like space. His partnering is intensely emotional, meltingly sexy and technically superb. But (there had to be one) MacMillan's Romeo is not his role. He will appear to infinitely greater advantage in next week's Giselles, particularly with his new George Clooney-ish crew-cut, which renders him even more dangerously handsome than usual. He was flanked by Tetsuya Kumakawa's airborne Mercutio and the immaculate Shi-Ning Liu as Benvolio. Kumakawa's account of Mercutio's steps showed his usual meticulous virtuosity. In his terminal sword fight in Act 2, he was physically a perfect foil to Ashley Page's monotonously nasty Tybalt but what happened to the sensuality, the camaraderie, the machismo, the wit, the sheer humanity of the character? Even very late in his career with the Royal Ballet Stephen Jefferies was able to make Mercutio's death a matter for tears.

We know that the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are momentous events that render the tragedy unstoppable but only because Prokofiev tells us so. So many of the set pieces seem to be hitching a ride on Viktor Fedotov's startling management of the score. In the first act Fedotov makes the Cushion Dance rumble with the menace of approaching thunder. Unfortunately, a passage designed to display the implacable arrogance and cruelty of the Veronese establishment is trod by the Royal Ballet gents with all the moody menace of a High Renaissance line dance.

On a practical note, the Apollo's crowd control was a big improvement on the opening night. This was partly explained by the fact that the house was less full. Ladies should be aware that, although there are numerous exquisitely renovated facilities, they've done nothing about the old ones and the old ones stink. If you can afford to be choosy, the stalls, although poorly raked, are preferable to the circle, which is a very long way from the action. Old Covent Garden hands come equipped with binoculars that wouldn't look out of place at Goodwood - all the better to see her with.

The old audience was very pleased to see Viviana Durante from any distance and any newcomers will have responded readily to her crystalline pointework and the fervid intensity of her acting. Her technique seems undiminished by her year's absence and her dramatic gifts are something in desperately short supply in British ballet. Welcome back.

Labatt's Apollo, to Sat (0171 304 4000)