Rambert, Oxford Apollo

I'm a big fan of Christopher Bruce but Lindsay Kemp can cause me to curl up like a salted slug and whimper with embarrassment before reaching blindly for my coat. I just don't speak the language.

Rambert's Cruel Garden was a collaboration between Bruce, Kemp and the composer Carlos Miranda. It premiered at the Roundhouse in 1977 and was billed as a "spectacle inspired by the works of Federico Garcia Lorca". Parts of it are excellent, but it is tempting to ascribe the good bits to Bruce and the ghastly bits to Kemp. This is unfair. Kemp has his moments, and when they come they can be flashes of poignant power. Cruel Garden has many such moments. The law of averages suggests that some of them must be his.

Lorca's status as an icon of Spanish culture (both traditional and modern), his homosexuality, the destructive passions at play in works such as Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba and his early death at the hands of Fascist thugs in 1936 all combine to make him an ideal subject for Seventies dance drama. He championed flamenco and the bullfight, and these provide the idioms in which the elliptical narratives of Cruel Garden are told.

The piece is performed on Ralph Koltai's spare but versatile bullring set. Rambert's dancers double fluidly as peasants, priests, mourners and bulls. The strolling players' paraphernalia of the cross-dressing, whiteface and whimsy anchor the show in its period: Cruel Garden is every bit as Seventies as Saturday Night Fever.

The protean central figure of the poet was originally danced by Christopher Bruce, and Conor O'Brien's superficial resemblance to him is enhanced by the stylised make-up. In the matador sequence he enacts a dangerous paso doble with Simon Cooper's bull - a superb study of inarticulate aggression. The primal menace of the duet is amplified by Miranda's multi-layered score (played live by London Musici). The murder is witnessed by the sinister figure of John Chesworth's Inquisitor. Part-homophobe, part-Fascist, part- Pharisee, his character serves as a handy portmanteau for the negative forces at work in the Lorca legend. The poet's death (the first of several he endures) is mourned by the arrival of sundry breast-beating maidens and six yards of butter muslin. Must keep awake.

We next see the poet as the bride in his own Blood Wedding. At first this is played for laughs, with funny flat-footed little walks and winsome tilts of the head (Kemp as Christmas, this one) but then one of the attendant Pierrots whips off his mask to reveal the ugly face of the bull. The watching inquisitor throws down his cigarette. As his foot descends upon it there is a sudden blast of automatic fire and the stage is plunged in darkness. It would have made a neat finale. Unfortunately there were still 30 minutes to go.

The American sequence is the least satisfying part of the 90-minute evening. Conor O'Brien slips off his wedding dress and dresses up as Buster Keaton - an allusion to Lorca's rejected movie script. Enter a pantomime chicken, a pantomime cow and a pantomime darkie. I think we all know who to blame. The audience giggled and were suitably softened up for the sucker punches to come, when the bull returns with his companions, who toss the poet around the arena in a merciless dance of death. Cheap but potent theatrical effects (sudden blackouts, smoke, etc) and various allusions to the Passion hammer home the significance of the tragedy, but it is Bruce's choreography, not the scale of the spectacle, that best suggests the art and passion of the poet. Bruce's skill reminds us that it is Lorca's work, not the manner of his death, that ensures his immortality.

Louise Levene

Edinburgh Festival Theatre 29-30 May; Derngate Northampton 9-11 June; Theatre Royal, Norwich 18-20 June; Apollo Bristol 25-26 Sept; Sadler's Wells, London 10-14 Nov; Wycombe Swan 4-5 Dec.