Arts: First person singular

Bizarre and autobiographical, Philippe Decoufle's `Shazam!' has come to Britain.
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"The show you are going to see tonight," said the man in French-intonated English on the stage of Amsterdam's Theater Carre, "is not finished for technical reasons, artistic reasons, personality reasons and also reasons that I can't think about." We laughed in disbelief, along with, presumably, Queen Beatrix, also in the audience.

As the performance started, though, some of us became less sure. How uninteresting, how long-winded these dancers seemed, on stage and on film, striking poses inside picture frames - and then how fortunate we were that things soon got better.

From that point on, we could see that each constituent was precisely synchronised to be part of the enchantingly eclectic and interdependent contents of a magician's box. So if you decide to go to Compagnie DCA's Shazam!, which arrives in London this week, the message is: persevere.

"It's a mixture of experiences," the same opening speaker continued in Amsterdam, describing the show as "centred round many things, like cinema, reflections, love, fragility - and myself". His delivery was droll but his sentiment accurate. Shazam! is about its French creator, Philippe Decoufle, 38, and its own genesis.

The speaker is not Decoufle, however, and Decoufle doesn't appear. "Different performers come on to resume this speech at various intervals, but they play the same character and wear the same jacket and their words are Philippe Decoufle's," explains gangly, bat-eared Christophe Salengro, who has been with the company for 12 years.

So when we hear, "I went to circus school and now I am a relatively old dancer," we are hearing Decoufle's autobiography. Shazam! consequently has a circus flavour in its acrobatics and playfulness. It also exemplifies his love of lighting and film, which perhaps originated when he began as a dancer, working in Angers with the American choreographer Alwin Nikolais, a master illusionist who mixed live bodies with patterns of light.

Decoufle has gone on to explore the possibilities of visual imagery in a parallel career embracing pop videos, films, animation and television adverts. (He is the creative mind behind the Chanel scent ad, where rows of window-shutters are flung open to reveal glamorous ballgowned women shouting, "Egoiste," the scent's name.) He has also become known for large- scale events: in 1989 he assisted Jean-Paul Goude in the bicentennial festivities of the French Revolution, and he orchestrated the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1992 Winter Olympics. Two years ago, his short piece for the celebration of the Cannes Film Festival's 50th anniversary naturally contained references to the cinema, and was the matrix for Shazam!, in which film and live video become a part of the show. You even get to follow the dancers with live footage as they travel backstage.

Stage and celluloid images overlap, the theatre dancers duplicate their film counterparts, reality and illusion melt into each other. And then there are mirrors, adding refractions and distortions. Along with the film sequences, they extend the capabilities of the human body, transcending limitations which neither dance nor circus tricks can overcome. It's a familiar but effective childhood game: dancers stand half-hidden against the edge of a mirror, so when they raise their visible leg its reflection becomes their second leg and they seem suspended.

Even better is an extract from Abracadabra! a film for the television channel Arte, in which Decoufle has a field-day with technological trickery. The dancers balance and wobble on top of each other in comically impossible acrobatics, their joints dangling loose like wooden cut-out dolls."I always thought," says another speaker, "my body was the best way to express life, love, death, war, anguish, countryside - well, all those things around us that you know as well as I do."

Shazam! is not only about Decoufle, but about all dancers and their attempts to use and control their bodies. "Body, O My Body, if you are here, please make a sign," says one dancer as he launches into movement. "You too, O My Body," says Salengro, who has just entered: "if you are here, give me a sign." Nothing happens for Salengro, while the first man performs a flurry of steps. "No sign?" he asks Salengro rather smugly, and the latter shakes his head sadly.

The surprise is, if you saw the company's Decodex in Woking two years ago, just how much space this piece gives to dance. The word "shazam" may be a cartoon-strip exclamation accompanying magical apparitions, and Decoufle might be an inveterate showman, pulling phantasmagoric devices out of every pocket; but there are also long and pleasant sequences of straightforward dance solos, pas de deux and ensembles. Perhaps it is the focus on human physicality, individuality and humour that gives the piece its special wistful poetry.

The old-fashioned patina of the designs and music contribute to this. Each side of the stage is furnished with the faded contents of a vaudeville dressing-room, while Sebastien Libolt's music, played live by four musicians and an accordionist (who is also one of the dancers), has the nostalgic timbre of the bals-musettes, the popular dance evenings of a bygone France.

One film sequence is (I think) set in the company's spacious home, a former boilerhouse in the Paris suburb of St-Denis. The Compagnie DCA is so successful in France that it can afford to tour two productions at once. While the nine dancers are in London with Shazam!, another 10 are in France with Triton, a restaging of a piece created a decade ago.

And what does DCA stand for? Is it Decoufle Comperes Association (Decoufle and Accomplices)? Or maybe Defense Contre Avions (Anti-Aircraft Defences)? I was given these answers and more. It seems that even the name is trickery and elusiveness, like the shows.

Compagnie DCA perform `Shazam!' at the Barbican Centre (0171-638 8891) from 8 to 17 July