Dance: Chaucer is jigging in his grave

Rambert: God's Plenty Palace Theatre, Manchester Sara Baras Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture
It was inevitable that dance would succumb to Dome Syndrome sooner or later: some dance director would take it into their head to create a spectacle crammed with allusions to the past 1,000 years. Either that, or rejig some famous early monument of native creativity to link up the long-ago with the now. God's Plenty, Christopher Bruce's most ambitious work since he took over at Rambert five years ago, does both.

A selection of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales provides the gist of the action, though the show runs for a good half hour before we get even a sniff at the Prologue. First, Bruce gives a resume of early English history, and this is almost his undoing. A long opening dance by a pair of hairy, horned figures registers the old pagan ways; then follows a singing monk, a dance for flagellating sinners, another for copulating couples, and a trio of Pythonesque knights off to the Crusades. Some of the images are mystifying: boogying nuns, sexy Saracen warrior women. Others are woolly and indistinct. Dance styles stretch from pastiche ancient Greek to vaudeville, which Rambert's 22 dancers execute with their customary high spirits. But the overall effect is a muddle.

The guesswork stops when Chaucer's narrator arrives - actor Ian Knowles seems to have learnt his confidential style of delivery from old Frankie Howerd monastery sketches - and so the Prologue and four Tales unfold. But it's a rum kind of dance show that leans so heavily on the spoken word. The dancers chip in bits of dialogue too, but you wish they wouldn't. They also sing - another bad idea.

Dominic Muldowney's music is otherwise delightful in its reshaping of 13th-century dances and fragments, ranging from delicate solo ballads sung in Old French to rumbustious Riverdance-style jigs. And Rambert's band, the London Musici, give impressive accounts on such exotic instruments as the shawm, the oud and the Turkish lauto. But why hide them in the pit, and why pump the sound through speakers? Some of the audience had no idea there were real people producing it.

Chaucer's Prologue unrolls in merry style, and then we get to meet the bawdy Wife of Bath (with Australian accent) and see enacted the Miller's Tale complete with bared bums; but even this lewd lark-about seemed to strain for its effects. Best was the Knight's Tale, in which Bruce creates a coolly ravishing solo for the beloved Emily - viewed through a high window of the Knight's prison cell - and a lively ballet for the jousting tournament, with knights careering about on skirted steeds.

Too little in this two-hour piece has this kind of clarity or wit about it. But to his credit, Bruce has gone out of his way to avoid tired Olde- Englishisms. Es Devlin's sets are stark, torn-paper reliefs of hills and skies and deserts, lit in stunning colours by Ben Ormerod. Yet the director also allowed himself the crashing cliche of a narrator on the side of the stage with quill poised for writing. God's Plenty- Dryden's phrase for Chaucer's poem - is in this case a mixed blessing.

Hopes were likewise raised and dashed at Sadler's Wells, where a 28- year-old native of Cadiz called Sara Baras blazed a trail for the "new" flamenco with her troupe of trousered young women. Aping the men in flamenco is nothing new. Carmen Amaya did it in the 1950s, when its shock-value was significant. In this setting, the wearing of trews looked more like a decision by the wardrobe mistress along the lines of "We've had dresses in three numbers so now let's have slacks."

The show, entitled Sensaciones, is very much a star-vehicle, with a 20-minute lead-in by the company before Baras so much as pokes her nose round the curtain. The trouble is there's not a great deal, beyond her glamorous outfits, to distinguish the star from her satellites. Her dancing is highly competent, but it doesn't make you sit up and want more, even after the dancer has rushed, arms outstretched, to the edge of the stage, presumably to cue in a thundering ovation.

Sara Baras has a good body and a pleasant face, but that's not enough. She has neither the plump prettiness nor the hawk-profiled fierceness of the most memorable flamenco women. And the peculiar half-lighting of her show only serves to effaces her further. She does some impressive things, especially with her feet, which are heavily miked. But you get the feeling that the improvisation, the impulse of the moment, has been rehearsed into oblivion. Only her musicians (fine singers, fabulous guitarists, a gritty flautist) display the true spirit of flamenco.

`God's Plenty': Wycombe Swan (01494 512000) 13 & 14 Oct, then touring. Sara Baras: Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 863 8000) to 25 Sept