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Dance: Nice music, shame about the dancing

BELLINI'S OPERAS will still be flourishing when Doug Varone's dances have long been consigned to merciful oblivion. I keep telling myself this to quieten the anger inspired by the last piece in the triple bill he brought at the weekend to the Woking Dance Umbrella. Bel Canto, he calls it, but from the ludicrous over-amplification imposed on the recording, "Canned Belto" would be a more appropriate description. Luckily, at this volume Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne are quite unrecognisable as well as incomprehensible.

What he sets his dancers doing as accompaniment to these extracts from Norma is even more horrifying than the ignominy he inflicts on the sound- track. I can only think that it may be meant as some kind of skit on ballet, but the sloppy style of performance makes it difficult to be sure. Anyway, there are some limp grands battements, much fidgeting with the hands, a lot of flat-footed slummocking around, and a couple of male pas de deux - the one featuring short, tubby Varone and the even more thickly built, wrinkled Larry Hahn is particularly camp. Both these gentlemen are much given to grinning at the audience, so that you know they think themselves real comics.

Bellini and John Adams are quite a contrast, and I suppose that the work Varone staged to Adams's Fearful Symmetries was meant seriously, but it looked entirely vacuous as the eight dancers came on two by two, performed a few apparently arbitrary steps, and vacated the stage for the next couple. Later there were more of them visible at once, and they speeded up a bit, but what all this had to do with the score never became clear. Varone calls this piece Rise; maybe he is trying to take a rise out of us.

The opening work had been less troublesome. Titled Let's Dance, it is set to a potpourri of popular songs, including the likes of George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, recorded by Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman among others. So at least there was something pleasant to listen to, and occasionally the action became mildly amusing too, especially in the lugubrious duet for Merceditas Manago and Varone to "A Fine Romance". For the most part, though, these dances were brisk, brash, energetic and empty.

And to think that Dance Umbrella brought this group all the way from New York. I wouldn't cross the street, let alone the Atlantic, to see them again.