Emotion in motion

In less than a year, Ashley Page has completely reinvigorated Scottish Ballet, says Jann Parry

When Ashley Page took over Scottish Ballet last year, we puzzled over what its relaunch as a modern ensemble might mean: a switch to Eurocrash contemporary dance, perhaps, or to yank-and-stab pointe work, Forsythe style?

With Page's third programme, now on tour, his aspirations are clear from the moment the curtain goes up. A lithe woman extends her arched foot over that of a man in white socks, T-shirt and black tights. It's Balanchine's 1946 masterpiece, The Four Temperaments, an essay in the astonishing language of neoclassical ballet. Page wanted to introduce it as soon as his dancers were ready for Balanchine's technical demands. Cleverly coached by Pat Neary, they know exactly what's required.

The mixed bill also honours Scottish Ballet's founder choreographer, Peter Darrell, by including Five Rückert Songs, made for the company in 1978. So Page is reclaiming the past while updating the repertoire with his own works, curator as well as creator.

How Scotland reacts to this policy has yet to be determined. The Festival Theatre was by no means full, though Edinburgh audiences are notoriously wary of Glasgow-based culture, and Scottish Ballet has a damaged reputation still to repair.

This bill is a class act for anyone who enjoys dance for its own sake and for the challenges it poses for its performers. Edinburgh's first-night cast for The Four Temperaments featured previous members of the company, transformed, as well as newcomers. Robin Bernadet, back after a long absence, relishes his Melancholic variation, sighing languorously with the violins; José Perez, a Cuban recruit, swaggers through Phlegmatic; Soon Ja Lee is a mini-tornado as Choleric.

Claire Robertson, incisive as Sanguinic, reveals her vulnerable side as the woman in Five Rückert Songs. Mahler's setting of Friedrich Rückert's poems is movingly sung by Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, accompanied by guest pianist Lynda Cochrane. Musical standards under Alan Barker's direction are high, relieving worries that the ballet company might lose out in its uneasy alliance with Scottish Opera.

Darrell's brief ballet distils the woman's experience into a eloquent lament for lost loves and opportunities, ending with her hard-won acceptance of mortality. Robertson's restraint in the role brings out the honesty of this intimate portrait of regret.

Darrell never veered into the glibness of choreographers who rely on flaring skirts and upflung arms to convey non-specific anguish; his idiom was always personal.

Page frames the two signature works with extracts from his own back catalogue. Three concise pieces, far less mystifying than his more elaborate constructs, show off their performers to advantage. In Acrid Avid Jam, a duet to heart-pounding music by Aphex Twin, Eve Mutso and José Perez twine slowly round each other as if drugged with desire. Soft Underbelly, to Wim Mertens's electronic noise, has imperturbable Tomomi Sato manhandled by two exhibitionist escorts.

Just when Page seems to be favouring men's abilities over women's, his 32 Cryptograms ends the bill, distributing the same steps between the sexes, similarly dressed in Jon Morrell's sleekly tailored costumes.

Originally made for nine Royal Ballet youngsters in 1996, the piece was overlooked at the time. As the first half of Two-Part Inventions, it shared the Opera House stage with a video screen. Seen on its own, with Robert Moran's attractive score surging from the orchestra pit, the space seems charged with energy. Shards of movement pile up, passing from one dancer to another. They stand out as individuals (bullet-headed Jarkko Lehmus unmissable in his tenacity), yet they've fused into a team.

In less than a year, Page has turned them into a company worthy of their national name.


Jann Parry

The GuardianTramp

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