Dance: Ballet isn't often as brutal as this

Musa Gitana Peacock, WC2 Edward II Sadler's Wells, EC1
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The Independent Culture
Big black sombreros; jealousy and betrayal under a blood-red moon - these are the stock features of Spanish dance shows as purveyed across the world. It's a formula that fills theatres, but as every flamenco aficionado knows, theatres are the very last places the original, savage Andalusian culture would be expected to flourish. It's a kind of marketing shorthand, like selling tourism on the basis of sun, sand and sangria. Sooner or later some brave soul was going to break out and attempt to show us a more complex, challenging picture, how flamenco music and dance are just one tradition among many in southern Spain.

Enter Paco Pena: not a dancer, not a gypsy, not even a Spanish resident, but a world-class musician whose upbringing in the Moorish city of Cordoba and expatriate career have given him an unusually broad focus. His new show, Musa Gitana ( "The Gypsy Muse"), branches out from the no-frills concert format into what Pena calls a dance narrative, tied to a series of socially-aware Twenties paintings by Cordoban artist Julio Romero.

Romero lived with one foot in the world of the well-to-do, painting portraits of salon society, the other in the low-life gypsy taverns where flamenco ruled. The moral tug between the two was apparently both an inspiration and a torment, and perhaps it's not too presumptious to see some kind of parallel in the musical worlds Pena inhabits now. Twice in the show the guitarist presents himself as we've not seen him before, as a singer of gentle Cordoban serenades: urbane, romantic numbers, accompanied by himself in a soft, fingery style which couldn't be further removed from the harsh ferocity of flamenco.

A selection of Romero's paintings - dark, symbol-laden depictions of women - are beamed on to a gauze screen at specific points where the performers and lighting contrive to recreate living tableaux. It's a clever idea, effectively done. We hear a wailing soleares and watch a striking group- dance based on the image of a funeral cortege, and at the close, the appropriate Romero painting melts into view. We watch a duet in which a sleek society lady entertains a man - the painter perhaps - while she, or more likely he, though this isn't clear, dreams of a tigerish gypsy girl.

It's all rather oblique and curious. But the elaborate structure is really only a frame for the songs and dancers. The posters plug Musa Gitana as a "flamenco drama", but this is misleading. There is no story as such. Instead, there is a succession of the most sophisticated innovations on flamenco dance seen in London to date. The star is the virile Angel Munoz, whose on-the-spot spins threaten to bore a hole in the stage, and whose purring feet and glorious curling hands seem to command the entire show in the manner of a conductor. Among the women, Mayte Bajo shows off some strange borrowings from ballet, mixing in flick jetes and classical port de bras to make a bastard form that is odd but interesting. Cecilia Gomez, a creature of gorgeous undulations and wild, black corkscrew curls, takes the earth- bound gypsy mode to new levels of rhythmic drive.

The "chorus" dancing is vivid, tight-knit and clean, and there is an extended fiesta scene to delight our buttoned-up northern souls. Overall though, I don't think Musa Gitana quite scales the dance heights of Pena's previous shows. Ideally, we'd all experience his flamenco at a free- for-all after midnight in a crowded Spanish dive. We can but dream.

Meanwhile, it was torture at Sadler's Wells. That is to say, David Bintley's dark and bloody ballet Edward II made its London debut almost two years after its first riveting showing by Birmingham Royal Ballet. It couldn't help but cause a stir. Love duets between queers, a murderous manhunt, a dance with a severed head and the concluding red-hot poker scene give the work instant shock value. In terms of ballet content, this is strong meat on a table more often laid for dessert. As a feat of stage architecture, Bintley's two- act work - adapting Marlowe's play - still strikes me as superb. English pagean-try provides the frame, beginning with Edward I's majestic funeral and ending with the crowning of the juvenile Edward III on a throne so vast that his feet dangle pathetically in mid-air. As in the original, Wolfgang Stollwitzer gives a touching picture of the weak king. No villain he, but a too-trusting puppet bruised and battered by the conflicts of duty and desire.

But jarring details have crept in. Edward's dance with Gaveston's head is ludicrous. Surely the bloody bundle would weigh more? And the fist- shaking and stick-banging of the nine murderous barons smacks too much of pantomime baddies. Bintley succeeds in finding inspired visual metaphors for the love that dare not speak its name, so why let plain hatred get away with cliche?

`Musa Gitana': Peacock, WC2 (0171 863 8222), to 7 March.

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