DANCE / Keeping body and soul together: Judith Mackrell on eclectic choreography from Union Dance Company at the Lilian Baylis Theatre

UNION Dance Company's claim to engender a kind of global dance culture may sound inflated, yet the company does present an image that is separate from the mainstream of white European dance. Its five mixed-race dancers are trained in ballet, modern and jazz and its style is global in the sense that kids brought up in north London, Leicester or Birmingham tend to feed naturally off music and fashion from all over the world.

Jacob Marley's British Jungle Dances, for instance, a work specially commissioned by the company, is set to Bombay film musak. Somewhere inside its wildly eclectic choreography is the gracious decorativeness of Indian dance, the beat of disco, plus Marley's unique range of garrulous, querulous gestures - quirks in the movement that intermittently turn his dancers from young athletes into muttering geriatrics.

Jungle Dances is one of the most consistent works that Marley has made in ages, lacking perhaps the flashes of brilliance of his other recent choreography but also their lapses of concentration. It's good to see Marley bringing out details in his dancers' bodies - deft footwork, unexpectedly cantilevered torsos, ornate hands and arms. It's also refreshing to wallow in the dance's mood of dreamy and dotty pleasantness - so unlike the current vogue for high- profile angst.

Bill T Jones's Soon, set to songs by Bessie Smith and Kurt Weill, has a lot of sex going on, some of it painful but some nostalgic and fun. Jones's prodigious energy as a performer is matched by the pressure at which he choreographs. Ignoring the leisurely pace of the music, he crams as much action as he can into every phrase - twiddly bits of ballet, sexy jive and big romping duets. The movement is often undisciplined and hard to see, yet of all the works in the programme, Soon is the one that gets these dancers going, forcing them out of a tendency to focus over-seriously on technique and into a more raunchily extrovert enjoyment of their bodies.

The other big name in Union's current programme is Tom Jobe, whose 1991 piece, Kicking in Mid-Air, exemplifies the kind of big mid-Atlantic jazz he does so stylishly and well. Dressed as urban guerrillas, the dancers shimmy and preen to songs by Aretha Franklin. They look tough and bold, but impressively deft and delicate too in Jobe's nattily syncopated style.

There's more good jazz in Floyd Hendricks' Urban Classics. Hendricks has been a dancer with the company since 1991, but this is his first piece of choreography, and it promises well. At no point does he attempt anything ground-breaking or profound, yet there's an unexpectedness in the choreography as well as a competent fluency that makes it a serious piece. Odd infectious rhythms, surprise inversions of line, a sensuous prowling quality to the movement all create dance that is watchable without being simple-minded, sexy without being coarse.

The remaining piece, Work in Progress, stands as a curious anomaly amid all this entertaining and energetic stuff. Billed as a 'structured improvisation', it seems designed to show the company in a weightier, more artistic light. Yet the piece isn't substantial enough to look more than a workshop exercise and this slow exploratory style isn't what the company is best at. It was good to hear the live accompaniment of the African drummer Juwon Ogungbe and percussionist Ola Adeniran, though - and their liveliness prevented the piece from becoming bogged down. It is, after all, Union's lack of pretentiousness, its frankly enjoyable style that give the company its special image.

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