Tour de Force is a wonderfully catchy, confident name, but the reality hasn't always justified the confidence. It has, though, a worthy purpose: every year to bring English National Ballet to smaller theatres by splitting the company into two. In so doing, it brings relief from ENB's normal timorous enslavement to large-scale box-office demands with a menu that under Matz Skoog's directorship has become even bolder. Tour de Force now looks suspiciously like an ambitious showcase for young choreographers, rather like the Royal Ballet's defunct Dance Bites.
Full marks to Skoog for his courage, but will audiences get what they expect? More importantly will they like it? This year's launch at Sadler's Wells combined pieces from both touring programmes and included two world premieres, along with last year's Cathy Marston (Facing Viv) and Patrick Lewis (Maneouvre) pieces. The first world premiere, Trapèze, presented a challenge even to me, an ardent groupie of its choreographer, Christopher Hampson. Part of the present 50th anniversary commemorations of Prokofiev's death, Trapèze is also the title of a rediscovered Prokofiev ballet score, commissioned in 1924 by the choreographer Boris Romanov and not performed in full since 1926. You can see why. Its eight contrasted sections may be lively and eccentric cameos, but they make for a long experience, which Hampson has not managed to overcome.
Echoing the circus imagery in Romanov's original Trapèze, he marched off his lead couple Sarah McIlroy and Jan-Erik Wikstrom to London's Circus Space for lessons. The result is some impressive airborne acrobatics on a trapeze standing centre stage. These, though, are the only circus elements, so you wonder what their purpose is in a ballet where the two other couples are simply onlookers, caught up in the rivalries of McIlory and Wikstrom. Cleverly, Hampson suggests a watchfulness, a possibility of something happening under the elegant, fluent surface of his choreography. The atmosphere and language has something of Nijinska's ballet Les Biches. But Hampson's, more abstract, less witty, isn't able to find a neat resolution, so we end, like the trapeze, in mid-air.
The other premiere, Wayne McGregor's 2 Human, brings ENB's favourite partnership, Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, as we have never seen them before. Spiked and grungified, they might be Blade-runner refugees. Where McGregor's alien configurations often transform his dancers into insect-people, here he asserts his interest in the design of the human body. But by taking Bach's Partita No 2, he invites comparisons with Forsythe's Steptext to the same music and emerges the loser. By halfway, the shapes begin to pall, suffering from a sameness of pace and texture, as well as needing more conviction from Edur. At present, he is more Bambi than punk.
Touring to 3 May (020-7581 1245)
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