Robert Cohan: The Last Guru, book review

Paul R. W. Jackson: The Last Guru: Robert Cohan’s life in dance, from Martha Graham to London contemporary dance theatre With commentary by Robert Cohan 380pp. Dance Books. £20 (US $33.95).

The dance world’s reach has always been tiny. Robert Cohan, the driving force in the understanding of contemporary dance in Britain in the twentieth century, grew up, like most people, in blissful ignorance of either classical dance or the burgeoning contemporary schools. Cohan was born in 1925 and raised in Brooklyn. His dance-life was, surprisingly, entirely a product of the US army.

He went to his first dance performance at the suggestion of army friends; he was wounded in Europe, and his months in hospital enabled an education through a well-stocked library. The girlfriend of an army buddy led him to Martha Graham’s classes; and his tiny war pension enabled him to give up a well-paid Job to attend fulltime. No General Patton, no London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Cohan – a lover of the mystical – would have said he was destined. And in many ways it was an astonishing ascent. Within a year of his first class, he was dancing with Graham’s company; four months later, he was teaching her technique to others and studying choreography with Louis Horst, Graham’s companion and musical director. This three-stranded enterprise – teaching, choreographing and performing – was to be his raison d’être.

Cohan’s charm and leadership, now legendary in the dance world, must have been present from the beginning, as he survived two decades in the orbit of Graham, a notoriously difficult character. A break of five years, in which he cemented his teaching reputation, choreographed and ran his own small dance company intervened, before he returned once more to the fold, in time for a tour to the UK, and a meeting with Robin Howard. Howard was a Graham fanatic, and was determined to bring contemporary dance teaching and performing to the UK. The man suggested by Graham was Cohan.

Difficult and by now alcoholic though Graham might have been, she was also right. The first performance by Cohan’s London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) took place less than a year after his arrival, and the important British dancers and choreographers – including Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston – who studied with him are legion.

Despite this astonishing success, however, much of his life was a tangle of wrangles with the Arts Council, which acted as censorious paymaster, unable ever quite to decide what it wanted. First, it wanted a company that produced artistically challenging works; then it quavered that the work was too “difficult” for “the provinces”, and what it really wanted was bigger audiences; then it withdrew support from those who produced the unchallenging work that drew in these audiences. It makes for dispiriting reading, as does the backstory of Robin Howard, who cheerfully pauperized himself to make up for the government’s lack of support, before being ousted in a boardroom coup encouraged and admired by the Council. Cohan’s later years, therefore, were spent only partly in Britain; he also worked as artistic adviser to the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv (founded by one of Graham’s very earliest supporters), and in teaching and choreographic endeavours.

Paul R. W. Jackson’s decision to tell Cohan’s story entirely chronologically provides a number of challenges. Cohan’s choreographic output was large – nearly seventy works – and at times the chapters have an “and then … and then” feel to them. A thematic approach would have allowed the author to show the development of the choreographer, from his more formal, austere earlier pieces, to his later, more lyrical period. There would also, crucially, have been space to discuss Cohan’s ideas. We are told he was attracted to the mystical, and was a reader of George Gurdjieff and Jiddu Krishnamurti among others, but we gain little understanding of how that reading translated into his work.

In fact, there is almost no attempt to get inside Cohan’s head and discover what he was thinking. His decision to work in Apartheid era South Africa, despite the cultural boycott of the country, is given exactly the same amount of space – two lines – as his “truly extraordinary” experience on a wildlife safari on his way home. His private life, too, barely rates a mention – we gather that he had a penchant for troubled, addicted men, but there is no attempt to look at what that might mean. Each chapter ends with a page or so of comment from Cohan, who read the manuscript after it was finished. At one point he says, “those ten years [with Graham] … were the happiest and most fulfilling of my life”, which comes as a surprise after Jackson’s chapter of trauma, slog and poor working conditions. But there is no way, in the structure Jackson has chosen, to address these competing stories.

Jackson’s belief in Cohan’s achievement is admirable, and, for those who have seen his work, entirely Justified. To name but a few examples: Eclipse is an extraordinary theatrical, dramatic piece that turns white-hot emotion into pure icy geometry; Cell’s universality, its theme being the mind imprisoned by the man, has been demonstrated over its nearly half-century of life; and in Class, Cohan did for contemporary dance what the défilés of the Paris Opéra do for ballet, laying bare the spatial arrangements, musical organization and formal composition that underlie Graham’s work.

It is dispiriting, therefore, that Jackson constantly reduces this genuine admiration to an aggrieved arguing back at critics long gone. Yes, it’s a shame that John Percival of The Times did not find Cohan to his taste. No, we do not need a quarter-century-old derogatory review from the Kilburn Times resuscitated so that we can be told why it is wrong. Cohan’s achievement was to enable an entire art form to flourish. That will survive. His best works will survive. That is what art is, in the end – what survives. The rest is howling into the wind.

Reviewed in the TLS, 10 January 2014

Isabel Allende: Ripper, review

Isabel Allende, Ripper (Fourth Estate, £12.99, 478 pp.)

Some literary writers have patronizing attitudes to genre. John Banville, who writes crime-fiction as Benjamin Black, has said he produces just 100 words a day as a literary novelist, but a couple of thousand as Black. Crime-writing is easy was his subtext. Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, introduced millions to magic-realism. Her subsequent sprawling tales of love in historical settings have a devoted readership. But on the basis of Ripper, it appears Allende too thinks crime-fiction is a lesser occupation, as the essentials of the genre – narrative drive, plot development, structure, even suspense – all elude her.

Indiana is a reiki healer, whose annoying tics – ‘she visualized a stream of sidereal dust falling from some distant point in the cosmos’ – the author seems to find charming. She also looks, we are several times told admiringly, like a blow-up sex-doll, and she has a part-time rich lover, Keller, as well as the devotion of Ryan, a war-traumatized Navy SEAL. Her daughter is game-master for an online role-playing investigation into a series of murders, together with her grandfather, and aided by her father, a police chief.

A murder and disappearance in this group has possibilities, but Allende ignores the very basics. The murder occurs only three-quarters of the way through the book, until when her characters pass the time by telling each other things they already know, leaving narrative suspense to portentous voice-overs: ‘It was then she saw the article that would turn her life upside down’.

With the action finally underway, ten pages from the end in a race-to-the-death scenario, she is still moseying along, stopping for a chat about the effects of Prohibition on California wineries. Meanwhile she has drawn situations of astonishing implausibility: a crime expert who hasn’t heard of tasers, police who, after a body is found, contact the victim’s secret girlfriend instead of his family. And no one, apparently, has noticed that mobile phones have caller-ID.

One wonders if Allende was concentrating. ‘He had to persuade Bob, who couldn’t say no to him’: if he couldn’t say no, was persuasion necessary? ‘From a distance – and indeed from up close’: how about ‘from everywhere’? Scenes are repeatedly set up, then broken into by a back-story before returning, often in identical words, to the set-up. It’s like reading in a cave with an echo.

If the characters were interesting, all this might be forgivable. But the clichés come, as Allende would no doubt write, thick and fast: Indiana is ‘the only woman ever to captivate’ Keller, Ryan is a ‘fish out of water’, the police chief has a ‘trusty assistant’ (later someone wears ‘trusty jeans’, too, which makes you wonder). Every page is spattered with vagueness masquerading as description: ‘delicious’ smells, ‘a typical day’, a character’s ‘perfect’ features.

All that’s left is inadvertent comedy. Whenever the Navy SEAL appears, the book practically sits up and salutes. Ryan might be a murderer, but only an honourable one: he ‘would have confronted his rival, given him the opportunity to defend himself.’ The publisher has missed a trick here, because this is the perfect place to embed a microchip that plays ‘God Bless America’ as the page is turned.

First published in The Times

‘Stuff vs. Theory’: Types of history-writing

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled ‘Fun Stuff I Have Found Out’. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives most women of their background and time lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser, extent focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’ ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanization, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialization of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels vs. legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place…[to one] where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, or Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoyevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the nineteenth century. Every household-management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, and so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, it was the very ephemerality of the white that was crucial. Whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about respectability. The transient nature of the white indicated to others that you had it: you had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’ second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on sixteenth-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables or even owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the sixteenth century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for verisimilitude of Dutch golden age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the heavily symbolic nature of supposedly realist works  which emerged as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularization in the nineteenth century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

First published in The Author

Royal Ballet, Jewels

It has been said that Mozart, so prodigiously talented so young, seemed to be merely a vessel through which God, or the music of the spheres, or whichever higher being one chooses, channelled the sounds of heaven. So, too, sometimes, does Balanchine appear to be a vessel through which music is channelled, to take solid form in front of our eyes. And never more so when the music in question is Tchaikovsky.

Jewels can be a tricky piece to get right. In less than 90 minutes, it covers 150 years of dance in three plotless acts: mid-19th century French Romanticism, via Fauré, for Emeralds; American syncopated 20th-century rhythms, courtesy of Stravinsky, for Rubies; and then, to end, the late-19th-century grand classicism of Petipa, to Tchaikovsky in Diamonds. For a single company to encompass this range is never easy.

Emeralds is almost a scent rather than a ballet, a drifting, ephemeral mood of past happiness. It floats gently by, and if you try, as a dancer, to make your mark on it, you have already stepped too heavily. Akane Takada in the pas de trois alone captured the style; Alexander Campbell danced well, although in a four-square Petipa presentation that would have been better left to Diamonds. Otherwise Emeralds was what it too often is, a sort of Presbyterian heaven, where everyone stands around looking refined, but boredom prevails.

Happily, once past that, as Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra sounded (played with good pace by Robert Clark, under Valery Ovsyanikov), one could feel the audience relax into enjoyment with Rubies. Sarah Lamb is probably at her best in Balanchine, and Steven McRae has syncopation in his bones. But the audience’s heart was, rightly, with Zenaida Yanowsky’s slick showgirl. On the outside she’s smooth and sophisticated, inside all bump-and-grind: fur coat and no knickers, as she picks up Stravinsky’s dirty little shimmies.

And then on to the grandeur that is Diamonds, Balanchine’s distillation of Tchaikovsky in dance (it is his Symphony no. 3 in D major, minus the first movement). So rich, so multi-faceted is this piece that some performances light on the references to Swan Lake, others to Sleeping Beauty. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares shimmered glacially, and Nutcracker was never far from the surface (especially with the four excellent soloists – Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Hikaru Kobayashi and Itziar Mendizabal – whose delicate precision deserves a review all of its own).

On some evenings Nuñez, with her rock solid technique, almost seems to find things too easy, and just skates along the surface. Not tonight. Her technique was no less rock solid – indeed, her balances were little short of astonishing – but it was her embodiment of the deeper grief that always underlies Tchaikovsky’s sweetness, his eternal yearning, that gave her performance not merely beauty, but weight. Soares too imbued his scant few moments (this is, emphatically, a ballet for women) with more than pyrotechnics: his fouettés, precise and admirable though they were, had also that despair that is never far from the surface in Tchaikovsky.

And throughout the movement Ovsyanikov drove the orchestra brilliantly, allowing the reeds and winds to predominate. The scherzo, with its pas de quatre of soloists, was haunting, its tragic waltz never quite overcome, even in the grand polonaise of the finale which Nuñez and Soares blazed through.

Ian Rankin: Saints of the Shadow Bible

Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 428 pp.)

The wait for Rebus’ return was not as long as Holmes’ from the Reichenbach Falls. Only a year after the Edinburgh detective ‘retired’, readers were reassured he would return, and he did, working cold cases. Now he’s back on the front-line, in a neat role reversal detective-sergeant to former protégée Siobhan Clarke’s detective-inspector.

Malcolm Fox is back too, on his last case with ‘The Complaints’ – the police’s internal investigation department – before he moves back to CID, working with those he’d investigated for corruption, not a happy thought. He gets a taste of what this will be like as he attempts to co-opt Rebus to turn over his old colleagues.

When Rebus began his career, Summerhall nick was dirty from top to bottom: witnesses suborned, blind eyes turned, violence and intimidation working-tools in keeping the streets clean, or so the self-named Saints of the Shadow Bible – Summerhall’s detectives – told themselves. A 30-year-old murder case is now reopened: did it and the murderer walk with police complicity?

Meanwhile DI Clarke is dealing with a road accident. University student Jessica Traynor drives off the road one night and crashes. But she’s a careful driver, there’s no visible reason for the smash. Why make it complicated, urge not only her wide-boy financier father, and her boyfriend, the son of the Justice Minister, but also Clarke’s superiors, too.

That is, until the minister himself is assaulted.

Where does loyalty lie, is the question that permeates the book. So many loyalties owed by and to so many. How do they get balanced, who is owed what, past or present? This is what Rankin does best, complex multi-strand plots that interweave to elaborate a theme.

In their earlier outing, Fox and Rebus had a fascinating Jekyll and Hyde interaction, Fox, a teetotal pencil-pusher, is a flipped photograph of Rebus: what he might have become, if he’d taken another road. Here, however, they draw closer as they work together, and the nuances flatten.

In fact, Saints sometimes feels more like a sketch than a finished novel, despite its length, the author relying on our knowledge of the previous books to gesture at, rather than depict, characters.

Rankin’s technical mastery is renowned, and rightly, but here he allows Clarke and Rebus to spend two pages bringing the reader up to speed by telling each other the backstory of the Summerhall murder. At another point, a character is told, ‘If you worked there as a detective at that period, you were a Saint of the Shadow Bible’. An on-his-game Rankin would never have let that stilted ‘of that period’ stand.

There is, altogether, a sense that the author just wasn’t paying attention. One plot element is explained twice, another character is introduced with a cursory ‘I looked him up on Google – SNP stalwart…face of the ‘Yes’ campaign…married to a lawyer called Bethany.’ Rankin has always been good at not over-explaining, letting the reader fill in the blanks, but it’s a fine balance, and a Google search and a scattering of ellipses falls thumpingly down on the wrong side.

And then, just as you think you’ll give up, along come reminders of why Rankin, and Rebus, take their place at the head of the pack. A brief phone conversation between Rebus and a colleague is so tight, so efficiently written – and so funny – that you fall in love with the series all over again. It ends with a text from a desk-sergeant: ‘Blow me,’ it says, in its entirety, and then the masterstroke: ‘followed by three kisses’.

On balance, then, xxx, and add the novel to your Christmas list.

First published in an edited form in The Times

Don Q and Dracula, Royal Ballet and Mark Bruce Company



Double visions

Should anyone need an object lesson in archetype vs stereotype, the dip back into the nineteenth century performed by these two radically different companies could scarcely be bettered as an example.

Potential dance audiences tend to be gun-shy, skittering at unfamiliar titles or mixed bills. The old favourites – Swan Lake, Giselle – still attract the most people, to the despair of artistic directors and devotees alike. So drawing on titles familiar from other contexts is a way of making audiences feel safe when booking tickets, while allowing creativity to flourish.

With Just ten dancers, the Mark Bruce Company’s production of Dracula packs a punch far beyond its weight. Bruce’s choreography more generally could perhaps be called “psycho-dance”, exploring as it does the emotion of movement and the movement of emotion. Previously Bruce has sometimes seemed undisciplined, his work running off at tangents, but adapting Bram Stoker’s bitty, epistolary novel has allowed him to focus this tendency into a virtue.

He has chosen his collaborators wisely: Phil Eddolls’s overwrought irony of a set wittily gestures towards period without any attempt at authenticity; Guy Hoare’s almost velvet lighting is a character in its own right; and Pickled Image’s creepily effective masks provide some of the show’s highlights – the wolves baying around Dracula in the opening will long linger in my mind.

At the production’s core is the reliably wonderful Jonathan Goddard. Long a stellar dancer, he has also grown in psychological intensity with every new role. His long, lugubrious face is tailor-made for the Transylvanian, allowing him to be at once both shamelessly predatory and tormented by his animal desires.

It is this double nature that lifts Dracula above stereotype and into archetype. Stoker created an Other who walks among us, the outwardly respectable frock-coated gent who will rip out a heart and eat it as casually as he hails a cab.

In Bruce’s grey-on-black world, it is, in particular, sexual doubleness that fascinates and lures, as Kristin McGuire’s limpid Lucy Westenra trades the tame adoration of her suitors (presented in 1930s music-hall style) for Dracula’s bloody dance of death. Not for Bruce the camp accretions of a century of adaptations. This Dracula brings fresh blood to slavering audiences.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet too has returned to the nineteenth century to look for a crowd-pleaser. The decision to mount a new production of Don Quixote is at first surprising.

In the past twenty years they have staged two failed productions of what is ostensibly Petipa’s classic of 1869 (which has in reality only survived in fragments, through a heavily revised 1900 staging by Alexander Gorsky).

However Carlos Acosta, the Royal’s star of many years, cut his teeth on Don Quixote in his native Cuba, and it has been his calling card when guesting elsewhere, so it is likely that his was the guiding desire here when deciding what to stage for his first production at the Royal.

The ballet itself – a demented mash-up of Imperial Russian choreography, Austro-Hungarian oompah-fest score, and late nineteenth-century ethnic caricatures – is pure stereotype, not archetype, and as such will never fit neatly with the British passion for theatrical realism. This is surprisingly deep-rooted in the classical dance world, and British dancers can’t ever quite bring themselves to click their castanets, shout olé (and Acosta has his dancers really shouting) or even perform the famous rocking-horse jetés (back leg snapping up to the head) without adding a raised eyebrow to signal ironic distance from the piece’s sheer silliness.

The plot focuses on a tiny episode from Cervantes’ novel, about a barber and his love, while the Don and Sancho Panza merely wander through. Acosta handles the absence of motivation as well as possible, and indeed the further he gets from the traditional staging, the more assured he is. Act I, which is almost all plot set-up, only intermittently and very unevenly interrupted by dance, is a long haul, whereas in the second act, in the gypsy encampment, Acosta’s interpolations, such as the flamenco jam session, are charming.

Here he also gives Basilio (Acosta) and Kitri (Marianela Nuñez) some character development, which they clearly relish. Nuñez has long been cast as a soubrette, which is mystifying: she is, true, both small and neat, with a great bouncy jeté, all aspects of value in soubrette roles. But she is also a dancer of formidable attack and intelligence, neither of which have much place in a stamp-and-pout part. “Feisty” is a word applied usually to women – women who speak their minds are “feisty”, whereas men who speak their minds are just men. Nuñez is indeed “feisty”, in that her dancing says straightforwardly what she thinks, with no beating around the bush. Would that such straightforwardness no longer had to be wrapped up in a veneer of cuteness for it to be considered acceptable.

Other elements of the evening are similarly tame. The West End designer (Spamalot, Shrek) Tim Hatley’s first act has a muted pastel palette. The day-glo sunset of the gypsy encampment and the surreal giant flowers of the vision scene see him at his most effective, but his dance inexperience shows in the frantically bustling houses and windmills. Dance doesn’t need moving scenery; dance is moving scenery.

The Mark Bruce Company knows this in its bones. It may be that having only a tiny fraction of the resources of the Opera House forces creators like Bruce to imaginative heights they would not otherwise reach. Two scenes – Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) in the Transylvanian tavern, and Dracula’s final chase, surrounded by wolves – show how skilled Bruce is at handling larger groups of dancers. One longs to see what this company could do with a quarter of the resources spent on Don Quixote – or maybe just the budget for the castanets.

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bintley Triple Bill

Is David Bintley the one that got away, the wrong turning the Royal Ballet took in the early 1990s? I have long thought so, and watching their current triple bill, the feeling only grows. Bintley trained at the Royal Ballet School, graduated into Sadler’s Wells (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), and became house choreographer for the Royal in 1985.

Then, in 1993, he fled. Two years later he took over at BRB, and the man who should, probably, have steered Britain’s premiere classical company for the next quarter-century has instead quietly, and productively, guided their second, sister company in the Midlands.

All well and good, but Bintley could – should – have been a contender. His work for BRB has been sterling, some brilliant. But tucked away in Birmingham, he has had neither the resources that London would have given, nor, sadly, the wider critical esteem, the recognition that is due to this major talent from those outside his own art-form.

And certainly this triple reinforces that view. E=mc2 tops the bill, and remains on repeated viewings a work of dazzling originality. Based on an examination of Einstein’s theory of relativity (no, really, stick with me, it’s great), Bintley breaks the equation down into its three component parts, “Energy”, “Mass” and “Celeritas (speed of light)”. The first movement, all pounding percussion and sharp angles, is Balanchinean in its attack and ferocity, but shattered into sweetness by the recurrence of petite batterie, an English, Ashtonian lightness; “Mass” is a heavy, lyrical interlude of triplets before the perpetuum mobile that is “Celeritas” is unleashed upon us. (There is a solo break, before “Celeritas”, entitled “Manhattan Project”, an attempt to show the devastation caused by the practical application of the theory, in the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan. It is best overlooked as quickly as possible.)

Tombeaux, the central work, was the final, unhappy ballet Bintley created for the Royal, and its elegiac, backwards-looking sense of ending is a personal as well as an artistic one. The music was conceived by William Walton as a homage to Hindemith; in turn, Bintley looks back to Ashton, and Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley make the most of its romantic, drifting sense of regret.

Still Life at the Penguin Café too is a monument to regret, to backwards-looking: to say it is the world’s only climate-change ballet is perhaps not to identify a very broad category, but it is an indication of Bintley’s breadth that these vignettes of doomed, extinct animals dancing at, in effect, the last-chance café, can flick in a moment from giddy charm to hopeless loss.

There were technical hitches on the first night (caused by not one, but two small fires in the rigging earlier in the day). But belatedly the show went on, and BRB’s dancers were looking particularly good: Joseph Caley in both E=mc2 and Tombeaux was in excellent form, as was Maureya Lebowitz in Celeritas, and Angela Paul in Penguin Café.

But to name specific dancers is invidious: the company, especially the corps in E=mc2, are at their best, and the programming is ideal – a quickfire shift between entertainment and intelligence, intellect and art. Lucky Birmingham.

Bolshoi, Jewels, Royal Opera House

The Bolshoi’s summer season in London has so far been straight-down-the-line trad: Swan Lake as an opener, Bayadère, Sleeping Beauty. Now, however, with Balanchine’s Jewels, they’ve at least dipped a pointe shoe into the 20th century, if rather cautiously.

Jewels is, to be blunt, a beast of a ballet to get right – or, to change metaphor, it is a will o’ the wisp, ambiguous in style, constantly shape-shifting before our eyes. To get to grips with it, from either side of the footlights, is not simple, and neither the company (who acquired this work only last year) nor the audience was entirely certain of its responses.

It is a three-act abstract ballet, and a three-act history of dance lesson. Each movement, represented by a jewel, encapsulates a dance style and period. Emeralds, to extracts from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock, represents the Romantic movement; Rubies, to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, neo-classicism; and Diamonds to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 3 (minus the first movement) the high classical style.

Emeralds is the most difficult of the three sections, a gossamer construct of music and mood that disintegrates at the slightest rough handling. And it got a fair amount of that. Evgenia Obraztsova, one of their loveliest dancers, danced with restraint and a certain charm, but never found her way into the heart of the style, while Anna Tikhomirova’s dead upper body and flat arms were matched by ears that were seemingly deaf to the music coming out of the pit.

It was left to Ana Turazashvili in the trio to show what could be done. Resembling nothing so much as a Modigliani come to life, Turazashvili floated and drifted, her neck and shoulders always in the correct Romantic shape, even as they were always moving forward, pulsing with Fauré’s phrasing.

Rubies, by contrast, should be bright and brassy and bold, and Ekaterina Krysanova, scampering nimbly through her fiendish solos, her astonishing loose hips allowing her to kick off dazzling développés, did her best to make it just that. Both she and her partner, the careful Dmitri Gudanov, started slowly, but suddenly seemed to realize that if they had fun, we might too; and we did.

Overall, the Bolshoi (like the Royal in this same piece) can’t quite get down and dirty enough – they’re slumming, rather than inhabitants of Stravinsky and Balanchine’s dive. “We’re having fun,” they seem to be saying, “but don’t tell mother.”

Stylistically, altogether the company is a bit lacklustre at the moment. There are too many awkwardly held heads and too many necks pushed down into shoulders when a difficult step approaches, while the men’s arms en couronne look as though someone shouted “stick ’em up!”

The highlight of the evening was, theoretically, the Bolshoi’s new star, Olga Smirnova, who has been dazzling audiences all season, in the final movement, Diamonds. I hadn’t seen Smirnova since she appeared in London a couple of years ago, still a student. She was promising then, triumphant now. But – a big but – Diamonds doesn’t call for triumphalism.

It is perhaps unfair to list the roll-call of greats who have dazzled in Diamonds – Lopatkina, a shining mystery; Farrell, an Amazonian huntress; Cojocaru, a flickering Aurora. Alyona Pikalova’s sets remind us that Diamonds is separated from the other two Jewels, which have ballroom surrounds, while Diamonds opens on a night sky. It is mystery and awe that Balanchine hears in Tchaikovsky, and that is explored by the greatest interpreters.

Smirnova is grand rather than mysterious. And her decision to go for a hard, flat brilliance leaves no space for the final most delicate moment in the piece, the supported promenade on pointe, when the ballerina reaches, finally, outwardly to – what? That undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns: death.

In Smirnova’s interpretation, all I could see was courtly demeanour. Her dancing was brilliant and dazzling and amazing. And it was, for me, all wrong.

By far the most moving moment of the evening was not danced at all. With the final curtain calls, Sergei Filin, the company’s artistic director, who was blinded in an acid attack eight months ago and has been having treatment to try and save some small remnant of his sight ever since, appeared on stage. His low bow to the company, many of whom have indicated support for a dancer who may have been involved in the attack, was heartbreakingly generous.