Dance: Land of rope and glory

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The Independent Culture
Australian Dance Theatre Sadler's Wells, London

Absolute Zero

Corn Exchange, Brighton

In the lexicon of dreams, flying fantasies are supposed to signify ecstasy, sexual liberation, freedom from the self. In the lexicon of dance, human flight remains a thing of dreams. What goes up comes down, and there's only so much that can be done to mitigate the effect. Unless, that is, you start stringing up the movement with harnesses and wires. Peter Pan does it. Torvill and Dean have tried it. Now Meryl Tankard, director of Australian Dance Theatre, has brought us a dancework which takes place predominantly in mid-air.

Furioso, her signature piece that opened the Turning World festival of international dance last Tuesday, digs deep into basic human instincts using the body in the most relentless and punishing way. It's the first time I've ever known the performers' audible exhaustion take over from the musical score. Sex, you guessed it, lies at the work's core, yet the fierce mating rite that enfolds over the course of 60 minutes paints a surprisingly varied and subtle picture of relations between men and women.

The latter, with their manes of swishing hair and tattered dresses, suggests a savage nature; yet at first the five females appear dazed and docile, locked into earthbound gestures culled from domestic tasks. Their men, all pony-tailed Oz machismo, rut for a mate like vicious stags. Yet later they show themselves crumpled and vulnerable, while the women gain in power and confidence as they take to the ropes.

Equilibrium comes and goes, but for the most part the sexual balance is askew. In a most telling image the women, clipped into harnesses, reach out both arms as if to touch the men's faces, then lurch jarringly on to the horizontal, arms empty like broken dolls. In another, they sprint furiously across the stage and fling themselves into a violent stomach- skid, only for the men to drag them back by their heels to the starting post.

Set against a wall of rusty riveted steel, to doomy music by Gorecki and Arvo Part, Tankard's vision of humanity as a self-destructive contest of yin and yang could seem pessimistic. Yet the few brief glimpses of fulfilment - the men swinging their partners with the insouciance of mothers in a playground, couples cradling one another on the ropes in an attitude of perfect balance - are the images that stick. And as the women creep feet-first up the back wall in the closing moments, you know the story isn't finished yet.

Bizarrely, Furioso's week-long run at Sadler's Wells marks not only the company's British debut, but also its demise. Meryl Tankard and her disciplined troupe have been sacked by the board back in Adelaide, reportedly because of the very success of this piece which has kept them from playing at home. Tankard should at least take some solace from the response of the London audience.

Down in Brighton, by an odd coincidence, there were more dancers swinging on ropes in Charlie Morrissey's latest "installation", Absolute Zero. The title, I presume, referred to the presence of innumerable blocks of ice - some of them moulded into opaque boulders with electric lights embedded in them, others fashioned with some finesse by sculptor Walter Bailey into spangly wraith-figures, fixed high above a large, oval pond.

Spectators were encouraged to promenade around this chilly water feature - plus a few other bits of Bailey sculptings, including some rather fine, stark wigwams made of scorched tree trunks - in order to gain different vantage points on the performance. Perhaps I was spoilt by having seen Tankard's aerial athleticism only the night before, but the gentle loopings and lopings of Morrissey's trio of rope performers struck me as tame and elementary - the sort of cautious doodling Tarzan might resort to when the old vine was wearing thin.

I can only guess the production was trying to make a link between the human element and the elemental elements - water, ice and carbon. Was there some political message about the greenhouse effect and melting icecaps that I missed? Or perhaps something of sensual significance about our reactions to cold and wet? (We don't like it much. It tends to make us sluggish.) I did mildly enjoy the bit where the performers paddled and splashed each other like revellers in Trafalgar Square. But that was about it. Mystifying, really.

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