Dance : Not exactly glad to be gay

THE POSTER shows a man with his head in a polythene bag, features pressed flat in an ugly, ecstatic gasp. You read that this is a dancer who treats his own body like a lump of meat. Yet nothing can prepare you for the experience of Nigel Charnock. It's not the obscenity that's shocking, nor the lack of dance, but the exposure of Nigel himself: Nigel unzipped, Nigel unbound, Nigel's very existence arrayed on a slab. It is not a pretty sight, but it's riveting.

Hell Bent is the last part of a trilogy of experimental solo works created by Charnock since he left DV8 Physical Theatre (think "deviate") five years ago. It was there that he developed his ideas on non-aesthetic dance - for him, making beautiful shapes and patterns with the body got in the way of meaning. Now he has gone a step further, and introduced spoken text. Or rather, he lets his tongue do most of the dancing.

Words pour from him like slops from a bucket. "I am not enough I am not enough I'm not tall enough I'm not thin enough I'm not fat enough I'm not fascinating enough or famous enough or young enough old enough white or black enough blue enough true enough wild mild flirty dirty cuddly snuggly bitchy kitschy titty or witty enough . . ." - out it comes, a Joycean thesaurus of alternatives for the way he feels. We can believe all or none of it. What comes across is the aching, yearning hopelessness of being - and specifically of being Nigel Charnock.

There is a storyline, and this is the weak part. A young gay man (Charnock) is jilted in a letter by his lover. He works nights as a transvestite, belting out Shirley Bassey numbers and porn-dancing in a shiny black dress. By day he mooches about his shabby bedsit wondering where, when and if he will ever find true love. Finally, he tops himself. This sounds awful, and in a way it is, but Charnock's public honesty burns through it like a lit fuse.

The explosions, when they happen, are sometimes verbal, sometimes physical. At one point Charnock hurls himself repeatedly to the floor, bouncing up each time in order to deliver another flesh-battering blow - 20, 30 times. The effect is shattering. Another climax takes the form of a speeded- up charade, Charnock assigning one action per word ("man", "woman", "hate", "love") and working them into an increasingly frenetic sequence of statements that make your head spin. He can dance beautifully, but beauty rarely serves his purpose - except in one sequence on a bed, when (presumably dreaming) Charn-ock "dances" in slow motion on his back with a large crucifix for a partner, striking poses from Old Masters.

Charnock's material is too explicit and his homosexual view too particular ever to find a wide audience. Yet in 85 minutes he communicates something essential about the human condition. The slogan "Glad to be gay" has never seemed less appropriate.

The appeal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, meanwhile, knows no bounds. The company spent the week at Sadler's Wells, its former home, showcasing the breadth of its work under its soon-to-retire director, Sir Peter Wright. The triple bill was such a rich and varied feast that it seemed almost greedy to have it all at one sitting.

Matthew Hart's Street (1993), a work strongly influenced by the feel, rather than the choreography of West Side Story, made the lightest fare. Ballet and boogie-woogie are an odd mix, and despite the elasticity of the dancing with its hip-thrusts and Seventies-disco gestures, it felt uneasy. Putting sleazy alley-cats on points has no point.

Balanchine's Prodigal Son is the last of the works made for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and BRB's production captures its 1920s exoticism. Michael O'Hare makes a splendidly virile tearaway, portraying extreme youth in quick and glancing movements, and leaps so high you suspect a hidden springboard. Monica Zamora's Siren is weirdly alluring in veined tights and a long cerise train that she ties and unties repeatedly around her thighs to allow movement. Balanchine knew a bit about tasteful titillation.

Finally, Pineapple Poll, the G&S romp devised by John Cranko for the Festival of Britain, summed up the joy of this Best of British company. When David Bintley takes over in August he will inherit a group at the peak of its crowd-pleasing powers.

Nigel Charnock: Drill Hall, WC1, 071-637 8270, to 26 Feb.