DANCE / High body count: Judith Mackrell on V-Tol at The Place

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V-TOL's name (an acronym for Vertical Take Off and Landing) was coined two years ago when the fashion for 'Eurocrash' dance was at its height. It refers to one of the poundingly energetic manoeuvres that are most characteristic of the form - where dancers are either missiles hurtling through space, or are ducking and weaving their way through flying limbs. Eurocrash turned dance into a battleground of risk, danger and reflex. It was exhilaratingly and alarmingly physical, but it also possessed the expressive range of people exchanging nonstop torrents of abuse.

From the beginning Mark Murphy, the company's choreographer, displayed a considerable adroitness in manipulating the Eurocrash vocabulary. In his new piece Headshot though he's wisely tried to temper and vary its use. There are still hell-for-leather sequences where the dancers court terrible injuries by dashing themselves to the floor or where they throw themselves heedlessly against passing bodies or walls. But there are quietly sustained duets, thoughtfully inward gestures and sections of broadly energetic dance where Murphy is more interested in rhythm and composition than in violent attack. The work's subject matter though is as aggressive and drastic as Eurocrash can get. Inspired, perhaps, by the current nasty vogue for killer videos, it takes on murder, torture, alienation and sex - in no particular order.

In the beginning it stakes its territory by showing the five dancers isolated in cubicles with their lonely desires. Their solipsistic caresses are made all the more alienated by a soundtrack of passing cars - masturbatory sex in a motel. One fairly gentle strand of the work follows two of these dancers' progress from estrangement to consummation. Beginning with sex by telephone ('I'm imagining what it feels like to have you inside me. . .the curtains are drawn but we can still see each other's eyes') they finally meet for an actual tender coupling. The rest of the piece in contrast is all anger and abuse.

Another couple engage in a grappling duet - shoving their greedy bodies up against a solitary man who shields himself with flinching embarrassment. They rapidly disintegrate into an ugly fight where the man's violent desire turns against the woman and he bashes her viciously against a wall. Out of this stew of brutality and emotional deprivation, suggests the piece, comes murder. And this is graphically mimed as several dancers dress up in suits and dark glasses (spot the killers) and inflict appalling acts of torture and death on the remaining 'victims'.

With the aid of Miranda Melville's economically ingenious set and Nic Murcott's soundtrack Murphy creates some genuinely chilling moments. The lights suddenly cut, doors fling open and we see snapshots of violent activity accompanied by sounds of choking and harrowing screams. Another lighting cut and we see naked bodies draped around the stage, their limbs hanging crumpled and lifeless.

This is all highly stylised and clearly meant to work as ritual rather than reality. But the tone of the piece is unfocused and it never engages profoundly with its subject. Obviously dance can't do an in-depth analysis of serial killing. But it can invent images that crystallise the emotional and physical experience of killer and victim. It can communicate horror, despair and love on a peculiarly gut level. Murphy's choreography lacks that quality of physical truth and searing discovery - so although we might remember moments of theatrical vividness or choreographic intelligence we don't come away feeling shocked, altered or provoked. Headshot is a slick and sophisticated dance of death which in the end exploits rather than explores its subject.

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