MUSIC / Well-adapted mutations: Bayan Northcott traces the sustained, but constantly changing, tradition of variation

In 18th-century France they called them doubles. In 17th-century England they were often termed divisions and in 16th-century Spain, diferencias. But notated precedents for variations on a theme go back at least as far as certain dance forms and simple instrumental pieces from around 1400 - and doubtless further still into lost centuries of improvisation. After all, if a song or dance pleases, the most obvious way to sustain its appeal is to repeat it with embellishments. But the real wonder is how this most apparently 'primitive' of all formal procedures has somehow continued to burgeon through all the shifts and sophistications of European music over the last five centuries, remaining a distinct, exemplary and challenging compositional tradition through to this day.

MUSIC / Somewhat lost in the translation: Stephen Johnson on Chinese musicians in concert on the South Bank - Stars of China: QEH, South Bank

WHERE does the culture-shock addict turn nowadays? The diversity of the world's cultures remains rich, but thanks to television and mass tourism it is no longer quite so strange. Even so, while the music and costumes of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations seem almost familiar to sophisticated Westerners, there can still be surprises - Monday's 'Stars of China' concert, for instance.

DANCE / Agony and the ageing process: Louise Levene reviews Darcey Bussell's Aurora, plus work for older dancers

ONLY a sadist could conceive a ballet in which the ballerina has to perform an agonising sequence of slow balances within minutes of stepping on to the stage. Cruel and artificial, it exemplifies ballet at its most unforgiving - and its most exhilarating. Last Saturday night a pink-tutu'd Darcey Bussell - looking all of 15 - stepped into the spotlight at Covent Garden and began The Sleeping Beauty's dreaded Rose Adagio. A shaky start became a promising debut that displayed her sure technique and sweet personality. Her long limbs were a joy to watch as she picked her way through retires like a fastidious flamingo. It was her second three-act debut in four weeks and she inhabited the character of Aurora just as freshly and convincingly as she had danced Cinderella. Less convincing was Jonathan Cope, who sketched the prince's romantic agony with peevishness. He made up for it with smooth dancing, considerate handling and Byronic good looks.

THEATRE / THE FRINGE: Breaking the sound barrier: Sarah Hemming on the International Mime Festival

Scientists debating the origins of the universe need look no further. The secret is now being revealed in Lavender Hill, south London: it was all done with torches.

CONCERT / Back on the old attack: Tess Knighton reviews Tafelmusik's Prom

EARLY MUSIC, with its relatively small audience-base and the high cost of larger-scale projects, is alarmingly vulnerable to the far-reaching effects of the recession. The Proms are therefore of key importance in bringing historically aware performances of the earlier end of the repertory to a much wider music-loving public. The enthusiastic reception this year of unfamiliar works by composers such as the Gabrielis, Biber and Boccherini has confirmed that such programmes can be successfully mounted in the Royal Albert Hall despite the 'inauthentically' large auditorium - while the space itself is of small concern to the many Radio 3 listeners, of whom I was one, for the Prom debut of the Canadian period-instrument orchestra Tafelmusik.

Mind my bass while I park the van

I HAVE been up in Edinburgh on the Fringe for a week, and someone said to me the other day: 'A friend of mine here at the Fringe dreads audience participation when he goes to a show. You see, he has an artificial leg and has to sit in the front row to get enough leg-room, but that's where the comedians pick their victims from, so he gets more than his fair share.'

PROMS / CBSO / Rattle - Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Just three days into this year's Proms came the first revelation: Roberto Gerhard's ballet Don Quixote, originally realised at Covent Garden in 1950 by Ninette de Valois, but on Sunday given its first complete UK concert performance by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
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