DANCE / A pumped-up turn-off: Judith Mackrell reviews the hip black dance company, Phoenix, at Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture
In the white, metropolitan world of modern dance, Phoenix are a rare phenomenon. They are black, based in Leeds, and they command huge popular support. Quite rightly they have had large amounts of money, hope and pride invested in them.

When they first started out, Phoenix were a bunch of guys with a street-wise image and loads of energy to burn. About four years ago, as a male / female group, they began expressly aiming for a more eclectic, grown-up style of dance. Yet, disappointingly, their current programme at Sadler's Wells suggests that by grown-up they've come to mean over-grown, or rather over-blown. Pounding along to thumping music that flattens the steps to aerobic monotony, flaunting glossy, vacuous images of sexuality, much of the dance on offer feels as if it has been pumped full of steroids.

The most purely nasty piece in the programme is Fatal Strategy by American choreographer Donald Byrd. The movement itself is old hat post-modern in its tacking together of club dance, ballet, Cunningham, and fashion- shoot poses. It's unflattering for the dancers, who aren't trained to flip from double pirouettes into disco shimmies with the required casual elan. It's also dull to watch, because Byrd doesn't assemble his choreographic steals with any wit or interest. He has nothing fresh to show in any of the styles he raids; the steps are simply an excuse for pumping up the dancers' adrenalin.

Much harder to watch, though, is the tawdry sexual game-playing that goes on in the piece as the women stalk, pouty-hipped, around the stage or splay their legs, as the men grunt and churn their loins. Byrd is careful to note in the programme that this 'game of seduction has nothing to do with love or happiness'. But who's he trying to kid? There's no possible moral to be drawn from this blatant strutting of stuff. Nor is there any kind of turn-on: it simply makes the dancers look ridiculous.

The body-narcissism of Fatal Strategy also infects Pamela L Johnson's Face our own Face, which is offered as a call to black women to love their own blackness. Couples cling in self-consciously erotic embraces, women stretch their limbs into pleasingly decorative shapes. The choreography makes the performers look great as bodies - but it doesn't do enough for them as dancers. It either belts them through coarsely gymnastic routines,

or puts them out on display.

Darshan Singh Bhuller's Heart of Chaos also takes a moral line, using boxing as an image to explore male violence. Bouts of choreographed fighting are interrupted (for no clear reason) by couples dancing in evening dress; a boxing addict spurns his girlfriend for the thrill of the fight and consoles himself with an aria from Tosca. Then, in the middle of this well-meaning jumble, comes one beautiful male solo where controlled lines of energy sculpt the dancer's body into eloquent shapes and create an arresting ebb and flow of force. Unlike most of the other dancing, though, this quiet gem isn't geared to revving up the crowd, and with the volume turned up so loud for the rest of the programme, it hardly gets noticed.

At Sadler's Wells, EC1 (071- 278 8196) to 30 April

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