Dance: Leap into the void

Bill T Jones; Sadler's Wells, London: Nigel Charnock; Greenwich Dance Agency, London
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The Independent Culture
It's not every night you see a dance show which asks you to contemplate the colour and consistency of human ash - "beautifully clean, like flour, with tiny flecks of bone," says Bill T Jones. He had deposited his brother's cremated remains on a plate in his aged mother's lap, he tells us. Then together they had buried them in his garden, planting a white rambling rose to mark the spot. We see the rose in bloom in a short, elegiac film, shot at Bill's home near the Hudson River.

There are many such silencing moments in The Breathing Show, heralding Jones's first stage appearance in this country without either his partner (Arnie Zane, who died in 1988), or his large dance company. And it's a measure of the skill and stage charisma of this remarkable American that a buttoned-up British audience not only tolerates these digressions into the personal, but hangs on their every syllable.

People who, half an hour earlier, wouldn't have given tuppence to know a) what hap- pened when Bill took his first (small, white, Jewish) boyfriend home to meet his 267lb, gospel-singing Mom, or b) what befell Bill's crazy jailbird brother, Boot, whose eyes were "part brown and part red but kind of attractive to women", find they care very much.

This solo vehicle seems originally to have been designed by Jones as self-therapy, to give himself some breathing space within the demands of running a company, and to rediscover his dancing roots and his reason for being where he is at 47. But he isn't easy on himself. He sings, revealing a rich, bluesy baritone; he dances; he talks. And often he does all three within the same minute. The tone may be casual and the dance content improvisatory (kinetic doodles to old jazz numbers and, more surprising, a set of Schubert songs) but The Breathing Show is as slick and precisely honed as a presidential soundbite. Spontaneity is in the script.

There is an artful dovetailing of themes. After Jones has danced his Schubert set, he eerily repeats the steps of the last song, this time to the accompaniment of himself crooning that old American folk ditty about Aunt Rodie, whose old grey goose is ... but he never gets to utter the word, just leaving a blank each time the line comes round. In fact, in a show that's largely about coming to terms with loss, the d-word makes itself felt by its absence.

Jones's physical beauty is undiminished and he still moves like a dream; sometimes stretched out and gawky like some great, gaunt bird of an African desert, sometimes feline and quick, with amazing vertical lift. And he employs his facility well. Even at its shallowest level of invention, you never tire of watching. The pity is that Dance Umbrella booked Jones for just the one night. I wanted to send my friends.

Nigel Charnock is another confessional dancer for whom the gift of the gab is like a second set of limbs. But Charnock's lifestyle commentaries, for all their gay-minority stance, couldn't be less like those of Jones. They are rough-edged and raw, often downright alarming. Nigel crucified, Nigel as Shirley Bassey, Nigel auto-eroticising with his head in a plastic bag - these are the images lodged in memory. Not pretty.

Now, in The Room, another project for Dance Umbrella, Charnock throws out all pretence of rehearsed action. The Room is what it says: a bedsit with walls and windows, roof and floor, into which the audience can peer from a number of vantage points, from perhaps the frosted glass of the front door, or from the trendy bedroom portholes.

Inside are Nigel and his friends, behaving, if we are to believe the blurb, as good friends do of an evening. One of them records events on a Camcorder. Nigel strips to his underpants and thrashes about on a bed. After about half an hour the friends remove the shelves of the fridge, squash one of their number inside, and pelt him with tomatoes.

The most interesting effect is the momentary shock of seeing others peering in from the opposite side and feeling faintly compromised. But other than that, I think you'd be better entertained round at my place.

`The Room': Green Room, Manchester (0161 950 5900) 25-27 November