DANCE / Little England: Judith Mackrell reviews Janet Smith's 'Intimate Strangers' at The Place

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The Independent Culture
Janet Smith describes her latest work, Intimate Strangers, as 'a meditation on the paintings of Edward Hopper'. This is an odd subject for her given that Hopper is quintessentially American while Smith could not be more English. The hallmark of Smith's dancers has always been their niceness, while the people in Hopper's paintings are often bleak, shifty, bored and ill at ease in their skin.

With this basic clash of personalities it's not surprising that the work lacks a fundamental clarity of purpose. Perhaps it doesn't matter that the stage picture looks nothing like a typical Hopper. The women wear 1990s pastel- coloured palazzo pants, the set is a series of large windows looking out on to a misty seascape (Welsh coast rather than urban America). But then the piece is meant as a study of the characters' inner lives rather than their outfits and their sitting rooms.

The music, though, is distractingly vague and dislocated. Christopher Benstead and Barry Gandberg's mix of song, percussion, electric piano and tape approaches World Music at its most fuzzy and erratic. Head-nodding transatlantic ambient sound is followed by African-influenced rhythms and songs with the simple English sentimentality of early Cat Stevens. It is music to drift to, not music to give argument, shape and atmosphere to choreography.

It certainly allows Smith's movement to flow along without much obvious structure - though step by step it is fluent, and rich in small design. Smith's talent has always been for making dance that looks easy on the eye and is gently graceful to perform.

If that sounds damning it's not meant to be. The straightforward lyrical pleasures of her work are achieved by hard knowledgeable craft and her six current dancers perform it with a glowing commitment, a heartwarming community of vision.

But the ease of it all makes no purchase on the subject. There's nothing desperate, dangerous or remotely American in Smith's long skeins of dance. Her silkily athletic rolls, her sweetly stretched extensions, her quietly sighing lifts move far too gently across our vision.

Even when she tries to get tough, to engage with the edgy reality of her 'characters' by jabbing a foot against the floor, making a head turn sharply against a sudden fear - these images don't snag against the eye or the heart. They remain part of the flow, a reassuring abstract of feeling.

If the choreography doesn't engage toughly with its material, it also fails to convince us that it's Smith's own unique and stubborn response to Hopper's world. Just as the work's overall atmosphere seems a baffled mix of cultures and styles, so Smith's movement is an amalgam of dance languages, current and old, that rarely seems distinctly hers. Many years ago she made a funny and completely original piece about cricket. It would be good to see the mature Smith digging back down into her own humour and romanticism, taking her own special line on being English.

Janet Smith and Dancers perform 'Intimate Strangers' at The Place, 17 Duke's Road, London WC1 (Booking: 071-387 0031) until 26 February; then tours around the country.