Brighton Festival: Nice work, if you get it: Nick Curtis tries to make sense of the first day of the performance-based Showcase weekend

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Ever since performance art became an embarrassing phrase, people have scrambled for new definitions for work that falls outside normal arts pigeonholes. The Brighton Festival, in its third Showcase weekend, settled on plain 'performance' again. At the Showcase Forum it was agreed that no one really knew how to approach 'this sort of work'. It was apparent, too, that no one really knew what 'this sort of work' was.

As last year, the Showcase seemed intent on diversity rather than definition in its 16 events: instead of a firm aesthetic, it thrives on mood. Scrambling around the opening hours of the weekend, the mood catches you. You start to view robot-dancing street buskers as non-narrative art guerrillas. You also see an uneasy mix of the accomplished and the artless.

This year's prestige production was the premiere of Wanting to Tell Stories, paired with 1992's White Bird Featherless by the Siobhan Davies Dance Company. White Bird, an elegant series of swirls and eddies from six fluid, white-clad dancers (the title comes from an 18th century riddle for snow) contrasted beautifully with the more aggressive, swooping joinings and separations that constituted Stories' musing on communication.

This was unquestionably a sophisticated dance piece. Not so Ian Stuart's rendering of Stockhausen's Harlequin. Stuart plays the clarinet well. He doesn't dance very well, because a clarinet tends to hamper movement. In observing whether Stuart can, in effect, rub his stomach and pat his head at the same time, one misses the significance of both music and movement. This was paired with some comic business in the second half which sounded like a clarinet convention tuning up. Perhaps this was 'performance'? It felt pointless.

Far more entertaining was the Neoist Alliance picketing the doorway. Disgusted at the inclusion of Stockhausen in Stuart's programme, they promised to levitate the theatre. They failed, thanks perhaps to the Temple ov Psychick Youth, who staged a counter-picket appealing to punters to use their 'magick' to keep the building on the ground. You can get away with things like this at the Showcase weekend.

You can also get away with work in progress. Shinkansen Tracks showed a trio of 'tasters' from full-length works. This was supposed to be movement-based performance, but you wouldn't have known it from the first two pieces. The third mixed studied ennui with explosive movement, overlaid with a fractured narrative on love and loneliness, but its considerable visceral punch was weakened by what had gone before.

This at least seemed to defy definition, unlike Plaisirs D'Amour by Meeting Ground at the Zap Club. Just as there was nothing in Siobhan Davies's work that couldn't be called dance, there was nothing in Plaisirs that couldn't be called theatre. Grinding, depressing theatre at that. It amounted to an hour of fervid emotion as Heloise the nun and Abelard the monk, her castrated priest-lover, pleaded with God and each other for fulfilment, intercut with a pithy precis of Wilde's Salome. Zofia Kalinska directed all the zealous gazing and compressed passion with the ritualistic intensity of her late mentor, Tadeusz Kantor, but the material simply wasn't up to it.

Blundering out of the candle-lit venue, the audience was hijacked by a gang of young people in Esther Williams swimwear doing a fair impression of land-locked synchronised swimming. They led a gathering crowd to Bartholomew Square to join The Coming. Chefs on a trolley, firemen on a Heath-Robinsonesque bicycle and mountaineers on a rope converged on the square in a garishly costumed procession described in the programme as 'a contemporary Rite of Arrival'. The atmosphere was like a carnival. But was it art? That's the problem with 'this sort of work'.