DANCE / Calm before the storm: Judith Mackrell on Our and Che Gelida Manina at The Place, London

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The Independent Culture
All dance is body language - it tells you something about the dancer even if it is just that they have a strong nerve, a calm centre or a streak of narcissism. Jonathan Burrows' choreography communicates in ways that are more complex and compelling than most, though in his new piece, Our, both dance and dancers begin being extraordinary at the level of pure movement.

The detail in Burrows' choreography is so charged and so various that your expectations are constantly being tricked. A phrase may begin as a gentle current, then lash out in hard, fierce lines; it may spin a dancer into a spiral, then unravel them again; it may tease and spike the joints or stretch them into curves. The possibilities of every move are investigated with a riveting seriousness. And in the process, the dance's emotional colours are heightened and released.

In ways that are mysterious because non-literal you're made to sense the tensions and passions that play between the dancers. One recurring figure shows three of them crossing the stage on all fours, their chins cradled in the cups of their partners' hands. There's an element of subjection or supplication in the image, but also one of extreme tenderness and trust.

Just as directly, you can read agitation in one dancer's twitching joints and infinite calm in the way another spreads her hands. There's total dependency in one dancer's embrace; stubborn independence in another's audaciously off-balanced solo.

Given the range of movement and mood in this powerful piece, it's a puzzle why the final passages should feel claustrophobic. Yet the grey costumes, dark lighting and sparsely textured sounds of Matteo Fargion's score conspire to make the movement feel increasingly stifled. And the length of the work compounds the problem - the last 10 of its 60 minutes straining both movement and drama.

Historically there are good reasons for the hour-long format which many choreographers now work in, but in practice it's often too much. If Our would work better as a 45- minute piece, so too would Aletta Collins' Che Gelida Manina - where the wit and ingenuity of the material feel stretched at just over an hour.

This is an oblique, subversive, often charming update of La Boheme, though Collins makes it clear she's taking no free rides from Puccini. We hear the opera playing as a young man dreams by a fire but, just as it rouses itself for an aria, another man walks in and switches it off at an invisible radio (from which it's only allowed to issue again in small bursts).

What follows is a series of trysts between three couples (who look as if they've been dressed out of Oxfam shops on a student grant), where seduction centres around a dance of hands. One yearning pair twine fingers round the edges of a door which keeps them chastely apart. Others indulge in a flamboyant hand jive or flexing of fist and forearm to attract their lovers' attention.

These restless hands often tip into more elaborate sequences - the most wonderful of which is a breakfast dance. Accompanied by a strolling accordion player, the dancers tap their eggshells, grab for toast and shake their salt in a crossing of limbs that's as wild and dextrous as a tango. This is typical of the cunning with which Collins can make rich and surprising dance out of little movement.

But, just occasionally, the unguarded passions of Puccini's music show her ingenuity to disadvantage. It makes you wish the lovers would tire of manual foreplay and give the rest of their bodies a chance - even though Collins' subtext is that today's 'cold climate' makes Puccini's vision of love unaffordable, unreal and off- limits.

'Our' runs to 7 May at The Place, London WC1 (Booking: 071-387 0031)

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