Dance: Love, lust, war, faith and sheer jollity

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The Independent Culture
THE LADY who told her friend in the interval she couldn't grasp the plot had missed the point. Christopher Bruce's big new work for Rambert Dance Company is not intended as an ordinary story ballet. As usual, he is working allusively, exploring round the subject rather than banging straight at it.

So although his starting point for Gods Plenty was Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales written 600 years ago, he starts with a prelude proceeding from pre-history (a couple of strange creatures with animal heads and human bodies) briskly through to medieval times, especially the Crusades, with dancing and song that includes a couple of guest performers.

Bruce looks forward too; his themes of love, lust, rape, violence, war, enduring faith and sheer jollity are just as much about our times as Chaucer's. So this big, sprawling, at first sight mixed and even puzzling piece of musical theatre, builds up an effect that had its first-night audience cheering.

The structure is surprising. We are 35 minutes into the show before Chaucer gets a word in, then a narrator (Ian Knowles, former dancer turned actor) gives us brief edited extracts from the poem's best known section, the Prologue, to introduce and explain the pilgrims assembling for dinner at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, before their trek to Thomas aBecket's at Canterbury.

So we don't get to the tales themselves until the second half, then only four of them, chosen for contrast of subject and treatment. The naughty jokes of the Miller's tale, about a pretty young wife, doddery husband and two would-be seducers, are kept until last.

Before that come the Knight's tale of chivalric love, all distant longing and fierce duels, and the Wife of Bath's story, obliquely and amusingly standing up for women's rights in a man's world. The Man of Law's tale doesn't actually get told, but provides the excuse for a quiet dance interlude.

And dance is the mainstay all through the evening, from the mysterious opening duet to the final jolly knees-up. Solos, gentle or vigorous, alternate with group dances that often tend to high-spirited humour. The company is kept busy playing innumerable roles with unfailing zest and flair. Equally busy are the players of London Musici, switching from ancient to modern instruments for Dominic Muldowney's rich, varied and lively score, much of it freely based on music of Chaucer's time or earlier.

The music does much to hold the shows elements together, and Es Devlin's clever design gets striking, ever-changing effects from what is basically one simple three-dimensional backcloth, partly hidden or revealed under Ben Ormerod's various coloured lights. Gods Plenty is well-named; there is more here than can be taken in at one sitting. John Percival

Gods Plenty will be at Sadler's Wells Theatre , London from 23-27 Nov (0171-863 8000)