Dance: From Eve to deluge, via the suburbs

Jenny Gilbert on dance
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The Independent Culture
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Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The choreographer Lloyd Newson could never be accused of being eager to please. He and his company - say the three syllables and you get the gist - have been putting the boot in on the decorative values of dance for more than a decade. Back in the mid-1980s, this angry young Australian decided that dance was an art form in crisis. Even contemporary dance had become irrelevant and vapid, he said, too concerned with technique and physique. He set up to show what it could be.

First, and famously, there was the piece about homosexual fear in the wake of the Dennis Nilsen murders, which left audiences with an image of the body strung up as meat. Subsequent works laid into religious belief, ageism, and laddish pub culture. So what have we here? The Happiest Day of My Life - a cogitation on the nature of love in close-of-the-century Britain. Is it cynical? Of course. Yet the most remarkable thing is that it hits hard and delves deep while also presenting some of the most affecting and heart-lifting images I've seen in a long while. It's also very funny. That's how Newson sweetens us up for the strong stuff.

A pretty young woman with a Greek accent gives a light-operatic rendering of "Love is a Many Splendoured Thing", complete with a surging Mantovani orchestra. Suddenly she delves into the bodice of her concert gown, plucks out an apple ("They don't feed you here, it's terrible"), and continues to sing while munching it, with no discernible detriment to the song. She's gay, in the old sense of the word. She's lovely. She's optimism unlimited. And she surely stands for Eve, and Cupid, and all those other suckers who've ever fallen under the spell of the bourgeois romantic myth.

The rest of the show - as you might have guessed - is about the sometimes dull, sometimes desperate reality of a long-term relationship, and the struggle to keep it on track. But what immediately lifts this scenario above the obvious is the ingenious use of the stage. A night club, a sauna, a bus stop in drenching rain, a church wedding, a suburban sitting room and an ocean of tears are just some of the settings designer Bob Bailey conjures before your eyes.

And the special effects (though all of this is pretty special) had me blinking in disbelief. One of them involves a larger-than-life chimera of a gyrating woman projected on the spray from a shower-head. When the guy lunges forward to grasp his ideal, of course, there's nothing there. Lighting man Jack Thompson takes the credit for that bit of wizardry. Other images I won't forget in a hurry: the manic nuptial celebration inside a glass box filled with balloons; the ecstatic bride drifting up on flying wires; and, much later, a lone man duetting with an upended sofa.

The work's first half - the courtship and wedding - is cut and spliced into a cinematic romp featuring five hard-living friends. These mostly serve to contrast male and female camaraderie and styles of sexual fantasy, as well as to underline the Nineties fixation with the physical: working out, dancing in clubs, pick-ups, puke-ups. Newson has a sure touch in drawing out choreographic riffs from everyday actions: he makes a compelling rhythmic sequence from two men pumping iron and comparing pecs in a gym, and another from two savagely underdressed women struggling to hail a taxi after a drunken night out.

The mood darkens in the second half, as Newson and his cast deliver their joint insights into the murk of disillusion. Kate (Kate Champion) is simply bored. Physical love is not enough. Rob (Robert Tannion) is unable to say the words that might make a difference. Under Newson's direction, even inarticulacy becomes compelling material for dance.

I don't want to give too much away, but the finale features water - hundreds of gallons of it. And by the end, everyone and everything has quietly subsided into it: the couple, their friends, the sofa, the TV. The closing 10 minutes are the most daringly subdued of any dance work I can remember - as if life itself were slipping away. Gormless and telly-addicted and tongue-tied as these characters are, I challenge anyone not to see a little of themselves in this thoughtful and provoking piece of work.

: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161 907 5278) Wed- Fri; then touring to Leeds, Warwick, Brighton and Edinburgh

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