DANCE / Adventures on the misery line: Judith Mackrell on Small Axe's contribution to Spring Loaded at The Place, London

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The Independent Culture
THE title of Small Axe's new dance, From New Malden to Upminster, has the ring of a John Betjeman travelogue - hymning the eccentricities and monstrosities that you might encounter on a journey across London's Tube. As things turn out, though, Betjeman would probably have felt mildly bemused by the work's mix of meditational minimalism, black jazz and casual game-playing, all of which chime oddly with the title's suburban setting.

The title does alert you, though, to the fact that the piece goes on a kind of journey. For fleetingly literal moments we hear the roar of an underground train in Ben Craft's sound score, we see the dancers strap-hanging in huddles and feel the insistent rocking of the Tube in the rhythm of their bodies. Less literally, the dance takes a meticulously structured voyage round the stage. Two dancers (Catherine Price and Christopher Carney) trudge in quietly repetitive sequences around the edges while another (Ben Craft) punctuates their progress in sculpted moments of stillness. Gary Lambert counterpoints the trio's inwardness with bursts of wheeling energy.

As the piece progresses, it also develops into a more louche and slightly more spacious kind of dance. Lambert and Craft, their hands almost manacled together, shove and shimmy their torsos as if trying to break out into space. At the end, introversion gives way to community as the four dancers move in easy-jointed unison. This either implies that the folk of Upminster are freer, nicer spirits than those of New Malden, or that the dancers have achieved some sort of physical / spiritual breakthrough (intimated by the work's epigraph - 'if you can't be a highway be a path').

Both as choreography and as concept, however, the piece feels half-baked. Its combination of stern formalism and vaguely zen mysticism often seems sanctimonious and it's hard to know what links the work's high seriousness to its odd gusts of humour (Craft and Lambert body-butting each other, the four dancers getting 'accidentally' locked into a brief, lunatic nodding sequence). Even the score, with its combination of 'found' noise, Miles Davis and half-audible poetry, seems opportunistic rather than meant. At 60 minutes, the piece also feels long.

Yet it holds our attention simply because of its beautiful if severe choreographic invention (Lambert and Craft) and its equally beautiful if severe dancing. All of the cast are ex-members of Rambert Dance Company and all rank among Britain's most exciting dancers. Lambert's jump, Craft's elastic line and Price's dangerous attack have been treasured by audiences for years. For this reason, New Malden to Upminster is a paradoxical experience. On the one hand it's deeply frustrating to see these dancers working on so small and reserved a scale - as if they've undergone a born-again conversion to the severest tenets of post-modernism (no virtuosity, spectacle or thrills). On the other hand what they do is sterling stuff. Craft and Lambert etch powerful shapes out of their dancers' bodies for us to contemplate, and the dancers themselves make eloquent even the most reticent moves. A simple twist in the torso expands into a sensuous feline stretch, an extended leg is an arrow launched into space.

With this kind of dance intelligence at its disposal, Small Axe should risk something more ambitious for the future - surfacing from the underground to breathe a headier, more lavish and less claustrophobic air.

Season continues to 10 April. Box-office: 071-387 0031

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