Bodies, rest and motion

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The Independent Culture
THERE are things an audience expects to find in even the most unconventional dance piece. A body in motion is one. But for the first 20 minutes of Delicate, the latest creation from Motionhouse Dance Theatre which had its London premiere last Saturday at the South Bank, even this basic expectation begins to crumble.

A thinly clad girl lies asleep centre-stage, and sleeps, and sleeps. Around her what might be a large black satin bedsheet is stretched taut to create an invitingly bouncy surface. The body does not stir. Two cellists in the wings saw away at the same two chords for minutes on end and the thought occurs that this might be a variation on that art show in which an actress slumbered in a glass case and punters gawped, not knowing what else to do.

But before bemusement can turn to impatience, Motionhouse starts living up to its name. Elbows appear, just elbows, spiking up through slits in the sheet. Like a sea of sharks' fins, suggested my neighbour - a deep dark sea that's also a bed with a girl asleep and we know what water dreams mean. Sure enough, Delicate is all about sex and unacknowledged desires. Soon the sleeper is diving in and out of the big black sheet sampling the body parts on offer with indecent glee.

For Motionhouse followers this territory is familiar. Behind each of the company's works, devised by choreographers Kevin Finnan and Louise Richards, is a tireless curiosity about how modern relationships function. A sharp text by the novelist A L Kennedy gives narrative substance to the group's distinctive fast-and-furious dance style. Brawny girls dish out rough justice to their men with judo flips and armlocks, and lay them out flat with comments like: "Sex with you is about as exciting as a mediocre cup of tea."

When dancers get vocal you usually wish they wouldn't, but these performers bring to their barbed dialogue the same dynamic conviction as to their dangerous hit-and-run dance. While some of the group sequences are blunted by repetition, single incidents stand out razor-sharp. A cuckold mowing down his beloved with a double bed. A girl crouching over a hotel-room basin trying to wash away the past. It's risky stuff, but succeeds in making real drama out of a crisis.

Howard Skempton's commissioned score is a miracle of diversity. Beguiled into hearing bells, gamelan, sitar and bagpipes, it is hard to believe it all comes from just two cellos and percussion. This could equally have been a great concert with a dance drama attached.

Contemporary dance aimed at children is rare enough to warrant attention, but work of the quality produced by the touring group Green Candle deserves to be praised from the roof tops. Director Fergus Early is ex-Royal Ballet, ex-London Contemporary Dance School tutor and brings the same disciplined standards to bear on his latest production for 7- to 12-year-olds, Alanna and the Tree.

Set in the rainforests of Brazil, it tells the story of a young girl's fight to save her village and its green canopy from destruction when Mr Big decides to build a road through it. For Brazil you could read Newbury, or east London, but the message is more lyrical than sententious. "Trees breathe our breath," sings Cathy Steward as Alanna, never pausing to catch her own breath between verses of exuberant barefoot dance.

Just three dancers extend their remarkably versatile talents to a large cast of colourful characters: a dancing tree, a chainsaw-toting logger, a writhing tree-python, a clockwork-driven bureaucrat, and Madam President, who cowers from the cola-burger-oilslick-producing Mr Big. When offered the choice between "boring" trees, or cheap burgers, the young audience plumps for the conservation option with relish. A small triumph of dramatic persuasion.

The show also makes a vivid introduction to world music and dance through composer Sally Davies's catchy numbers on Tijuana brass and accordion and wildly varied dances that include acrobatics in the branches of the animated tree and a jolly version of the samba involving collapsing umbrellas.

In most children's awareness of dance there is a large void between disco and the Nutcracker. Green Candle fills it with panache.

`Delicate': Leicester Phoenix (0116 255 4854), 25 Apr; `Alanna': details on 0171 359 8776.