Not quite a ball

THE CRITICS DANCE

LONDON City Ballet - more than any other classical dance company we have - prides itself on its accessibility. Accessible in that it visits theatres all over Britain, accessible in the kind of work it presents: easy on the eye, nothing too challenging. So when it announced that 23- year-old Matthew Hart, a Royal Ballet protege, was to choreograph a new, full-length Cinderella for its dancers, eyebrows arched. Perhaps Hart would bring the company the bit of edge it wanted, and the hit so badly needed to secure its future. Just think of what that other Matthew did with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

But it turns out that Hart has not really had a free hand. Lumbered with sets and costumes from a previous staging, what emerges is traditional and unremarkable. He moves the story along briskly enough and patterns the stage attractively, but the images one takes home are less of glittering choreography than of little gilt chairs and mountains of sparkly tulle.

Hart may have been daunted by precedent. Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is still remembered fondly, especially for Ashton's own performance as an Ugly Sister. Hart's comic touch is unsure. He adds one new character - Buttons, from pantomime - but perversely declines to use men as the Ugly Sisters on the grounds that it would smack too much of farce. So a sweetly drooping Cinderella is flanked by two not-remotely-ugly ballerinas who must strain for comic effect by constant grimacing and bumping into one another.

Prokofiev's score is not his most memorable, but it does have a sinuous dark quality that hints at murky undercurrents in the plot. Drunkenness, deviancy, jealousy, bitter abuse: Hart might have picked up any of these threads to weave a more interesting fabric. Things begin to look up when in an early scene he devises a violently strutting, chin- jutting sequence for stepmother and daughters, but this burst of invention is not followed through.

If family entertainment is what LCB ordered, that is what it got, complete with cut-out-and-keep Prince, and a godmother in pink who wafts her arms in the air so often you suspect she is trying to rid the stage of bad smells, not spells. But there is some lovely dancing from the principals, and enough committed prettiness from the corps to keep any number of children, and their great-grannies, enthralled.

Paradoxically, a more challenging experience of the story is provided by The Starlight Cloak, a musical show devised for children by Polka Theatre in Wimbledon. There are, the programme claims, around 600 variants of Cinderella. This one dates back to 12th-century Ireland and stands out by having the abused heroine (here named Una) married by the interval. The rest of the tale describes her furious sisters' revenge.

The production finds mention here for the inclusion of striking choreography based on traditional Irish dance, accompanied on stage by some very nifty tin-whistle playing and haunting ballad singing. Polka has a reputation for meticulous research and its value is felt in every minute of The Starlight Cloak, which succeeds in telling a complex tale with wit and pace and offers a vivid picture of Celtic culture too.

When Una needs a carriage to go to the ceilidh, her godmother summons help from the fairy folk, the Sidh ("shee"), and out of the eerie gloom a delicately prancing girl-horse trips a measure of soft-shoe to the sound of pipe and drum. When Una needs rescuing from the belly of a whale (a miracle on the tiny stage), the Sidh reappears as a clattering, clog-dancing warrior horse. These solo dance sequences (performed with a fine sensuousness by Marianne March) make the dramatic highpoints of the piece, and surely come as close to the true spirit of Celtic dance as the overblown Riverdance.

The Royal Ballet rounds off a year of devotions to Frederick Ashton with a double bill reviving his neat, one-act "skating ballet", Les Patineurs, as an elegant foil to his Tales of Beatrix Potter, a work which survives more for its amazing fairy masks than for its gambolling and frisking. Les Patineurs, created in 1937 with a very young Margot Fonteyn as the glamorous dancer in white, sums up Ashton's gift to the world in just half an hour of bliss.

On the surface, it is a modish conceit - a stage set like an outdoor ice-rink and ballet dancers pretending to be on skates. But typically, it is also a compact study of academic dance, based on just five steps which are ingeniously reversed, inverted and developed by different groups of dancers, building to a bravura display of fast pirouetting that would drill a hole through the thickest of ice. What did the Royal Ballet do before it found Tetsuya Kumakawa? The central, shoulder-shrugging Fred Astaire role might have been made for him. As the curtain falls, he's spinning like a top. As it lifts its skirts again he is still spinning. The show-off.

`Cinderella': Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 713 6000), to 6 Jan. `The Starlight Cloak': Polka, SW19 (0181 543 4888), to 3 Feb. Ashton Bill: ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), to 6 Jan.

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