DANCE / Domestic science: Judith Mackrell reviews Divas at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler's Wells

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The Independent Culture
A stageful of women dancers dressed in white is a not uncommon vision in ballet. Swan maidens, ghostly bayaderes, vengeful wilis - they all embody a (male) choreographer's fantasy of perfect beauty and perfect form.

In Divas's unmissably titled No Man's Land, the small stage of the Lilian Baylis Theatre is crammed with four cellists, one singer and 18 dancers - all of them women and all in white frocks. But it is the images of the choreographer Liz Aggiss they are dancing, and, in their un-sleek assortment of size, shape and age, they are not adapting to anyone's idea of perfection, except perhaps their own.

The piece is set to 10 Polish songs, vibrantly scored by Billy Cowie and sung with forceful and tender passion by Juliet Russell. Aggiss's choreography is minimal and simply patterned, a slow march where hands and arms lock into geometric forms, a group of rocking, fist-clenched furies. What dominates the movement, though, is the fact that few of the dancers have much technique and most look as if they've just stepped out of their own homes.

The consequence is that certain moments have a directness and freshness which it would be hard to achieve with a fully professional group. Duets where two young women dance, their lips glued in a greedy kiss, or where two older women walk forward, shyly and bravely, to confront the audience make you feel, yes, why not see these ordinary women dancing real-life moments on a professional stage?

But other moments make you uneasy with the whole concept. Too often the raggedness of the execution gets in the way of the movement, and there are passages where the piece falls into the hand-holding cosiness of a therapy group recital. You know that the emotions feeding into the dance are real, but the performance doesn't catch and communicate them to anyone outside.

Falling Apart at the Seams, a duet for Aggiss and the opera singer Naomi Itami, treads a similar tightrope between art and life but does so with trained expertise. Gaunt faced and neurotic-limbed, Aggiss parodies her own long-term fascination with the dark and grotesque. She is a woman afraid of ageing, obsessed with disintegration and pain, while Itami, smooth-skinned, practical and at ease, winds her up with some funny and often painfully personal cracks about her vanity and artistic insecurity. At one point, Itami sits serenely astride Aggiss's chest and practically winds her as she tries to stammer out her lines. At others the lush lyricism of Itami's singing taunts the angular distress of Aggiss's dancing. The audience's obvious enthusiasm for this second piece confirmed how much better Aggiss does for herself when performing with artists in her own league. But to suggest that she sticks with them is to deny the stubborn politics of her work.