They're back, and this time they're popular

DANCE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DAME MARIE RAMBERT once remarked that if the Royal Ballet saw itself as a kind of National Gallery of dance, then the Rambert company was the Tate. Well, she would, wouldn't she? Since then, Britain's oldest dance company has seen its fortunes rise and fall, reaching its lowest point three years ago. Audiences had dwindled and a row over artistic policy had left the outfit without a director. Putting a pile of bricks on stage could only have helped.

Exactly 12 months ago Rambert Dance Company rose from the rubble, expanded, extra-funded, and with a new director who promised what sounded suspiciously like the impossible: to create a repertoire that cut across classical, modern and post-modern lines, to maintain the highest artistic standards and - this was the tricky part - to fill theatres.

One year on, Christopher Bruce might find time to allow himself a quiet smile. Audiences have doubled and, to judge by the enthusiastic showing at the Swan Theatre in High Wycombe on Tuesday, now take in a broad sweep of new-dance aficionados, ballet lovers and first-timers. What has put all these provincial bottoms on seats is not an evening of lolli-pops, but a mixed bill that includes a commission from the Hackney Empire maverick Matthew Hawkins, a piece by Jiri Kylian, and a neglected hit from the Seventies glory days of London Contemporary Dance.

The Hawkins commission was a risk - the title, Dancing Attendance on the Cultural Chasm, is plonkingly ill-judged - but its sheer whackiness secures the audience's goodwill. Set to an elegant orchestral suite by Rameau, Hawkins's Baroque masque scotches any expectation of ruffs and furbelows in the first moments when a mottled hermaphroditic creature insinuates itself on stage. Joined by similar slithery figures with curious padded craniums, the courtly dance of Mekons gets under way. Hawkins asked each performer to supply dance phrases from past roles that had certain specific associations. The result is an intriguing and only occasionally mystifying hotch-potch that, in referring to three centuries of gestural style all at once, narrowly succeeds in conjuring some mythical future.

By contrast Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort, conceived for the Mozart bicentenary in Salzburg four years ago, already has the air of a classic. Set to two luscious Mozart slow movements, the art of fencing cleverly supplies the themes. Dressed suggestively in fencers' corsets, the women swoop about wheeling "foils" of crinolined dresses; their men indulge in a stunning display of synchronised sword control. Later, in a series of intimate, erotic and demanding pas de deux, Kylian exploits that other meaning of his title - the little death between the sheets.

But the buzz of the evening was for Stabat Mater, a revival of the 20- year-old ballet by Robert Cohan. Its theme is sombre - the grief of Mary as she contemplates her crucified son - but Cohan's images are of such deep and startling beauty that the effect is uplifting. A central figure and eight female attendants - each in a different blue - present a shifting tableau of externalised sorrow, despairing, comforting, succouring. Simplicity is raised to an art, with circle dances, flowing lines and movement issuing directly from Vivaldi's score - sung here with a harrowing tenderness by Jonathan Peter Kenny. Stabat Mater is a rare experience. Catch Rambert on tour if it is the only dance ticket you buy this year.

Sheffield Lyceum (01142 769922), Tues to Sat.

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