Arts: Dance - A lovely, shimmering fake

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The Independent Culture


V-TOL is a comely and youthful dance company who not only move but speak. They include two actors, but several dancers are versatile enough to use their own voices. During their touring show, Without Trace, I was thinking how much improved their banal words would be if the director, Mark Murphy, had enlisted a scriptwriter; as the credits rolled up, I found he had.

Without Trace revolves around an enigma: a woman, Beth, suddenly leaves for no apparent reason, and gets killed in a car accident. Murphy puffs up this premiss by chopping it into fashionably tricksy fragments, inflating it with loud incidental music (mostly by Graham Cunnington) and complicating it with his own elaborate film effects. A curved wall acts as a film screen, behind which you can often see the musicians; a curtain also descends intermittently to provide another semi-transparent surface, so that large, projected images overlie the real-life figures behind.

These production values are so glossy, they make your average ballet company look like country hicks. A big-scale celluloid Beth (Christine Devaney) stands on a country road, with fields spinning round her, while her smaller stage version dances behind and a third woman (the actor Joanna Holden), narrates her thoughts.

Another film sequence repeats over and over the last exchange between Beth and her lover Jim (James Hewison) - "Oh Beth, what time will you be back?" The actor Eric MacLennan, with Jim and Beth's subsequent boyfriend Glen (Ben Joiner), puts into words the agonised dance duet.

Yet the whole thing feels fake, with the core as insubstantial as the production's shifting layers. Each event is laboured for all it's worth; the music evokes zooming cars, splintered glass and other relevant sounds. The presentation promises deep significance and intellectual stimulation, but in fact it packages a flimsy story in glossy cellophane and ribbons. Murphy says he wants to leave space for the audience's imagination, but the characters remain ciphers and you never get to engage with them, despite their misery. Watching it, you become a passive couch potato, as evanescent pictures pass before your eyes.

Without Trace is the latest in V-Tol's series of danse-noire pieces, attempts to bring psychological suspense to the stage and incorporate film effects. It is Murphy's most impressively sophisticated use of film yet. He reputedly wants to direct films. Given that his raw-contoured choreography is unlikely to set the dance world on fire, I would think his real success lies in film, provided he gets himself stronger scripts.

The Point, Eastleigh (01703 652333), Tues; MacRobert Arts Centre, University of Stirling (01786 461081), 19 Nov; Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161-907 5278/ 5279), 26 Nov; touring continues next year