Dance: Not funny ha-ha; just funny odd

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The Independent Culture
Elbow Room

The Place, London

Divas

Purcell Room, London

Gandini Juggling Project

Circus Space, London

It's not easy for dance to raise a laugh. The funniest acts tend to be the ones that poke fun at dance's own conventions. It aims so hard for perfection that any physical lapse can seem indecently hilarious. But dance as stand-up comedy? Short clips as sketches in a cabaret? The idea is worth a try. But on the evidence of the week-long dance and comedy season compered by the poet John Hegley, I'd guess it won't be tried again in a hurry. My ribs went largely untickled.

Yet Hegley was a good choice as anchorman. Even in his famous geeky glasses, wearing his Luton solicitor's suit and earnest frown, he is an agile mover in his own right. Ever since his poetry show Dancing With Potatoes, he has made room for a spot of choreography in his act, largely as a visual adjunct to his lugubrious send-up of poetry-club enunciation, flapping his arms and flexing his knees as if such physical exertions might help his clunking verse to fit the scansion.

His opening routine, in which he and Nigel, his sidekick, dance a rutting- males duet with the help of two cabbages, was only mildly amusing. But a poem which involved bouncing up- and downstairs in full lotus position (oh yes, he can) was very funny indeed. And the poems about glasses and bungalows and growing up in Luton proved even sharper on the stage than on the page. It was the dance acts he made way for that let the side down.

Considering that Clerkinworks, an Irish-dance group, boasts All-Ireland and Great Britain champions among its number, its knee-swivelling line- up of clackety steel-capped feet is no more nimble than it ought to be. What made its slot depressing was the rag-week content of Cinder Reilly, a treatment of the fairytale that even panto would reject as tacky. Ugly sisters snorting magic dust? A gay denouement ending in a Riverdance conga line? Spare us.

A short, sexy, club-dance duet from Arlette George and Stephen Kirkham restored a note of subtlety, but the visual punchline (something about fully dressed social dancing simulating sex, yet people with their trousers off not looking sexy at all) was far too obscure to align itself to comedy.

"Happy Hour", Wendy Houstoun's sozzled dance-and-speech monologue as a self-recriminating drunk, was equally misplaced here: too tragic, too confrontational, too close to the bone. The only glimmer of light relief came in a brief item by the Spanish performance artist La Ribot, who appeared in a Betty Grable swimsuit to run through an alphabetical charade based on place-names: "Buenos Eyeres ... Chesterfield ... Lipsbon ... Thigh- land ...". It took a while for the penny to drop as she blinked her eyes, rubbed her chest and smacked her lips, but La Ribot was the only artist, aside from Hegley, who hit the right note for revue.

Over at the Purcell Room, the cabaret theme prevailed with an outfit called Divas - a bit of a misnomer since the main mover and shaker, and diva if you must, is the resolutely singular Liz Aggiss. The first half of the show is an extended solo turn flavoured by Berlin cabaret of the 1930s, a sort of Kit-Kat Klub without the girls, with Aggiss as the Grotesque Dancer of the title.

She appears first as a cross between a lesbian games mistress and a sadistic character from the pages of Struwwelpeter. While pianist Billy Cowie and saxophonist Gerry McCrystal play mordant, folk-inspired melodies at one side of the stage, Aggiss - in bobbed wig and weird puffball shorts - strikes contorted poses against a curtain, hops on one leg like a rugby player nursing an injury, or mugs hysterically like a silent film heroine. She also sings passably, but that's by the by, because as a recreation of Third Reich cabaret this is absolute tosh: not dark enough, not vicious enough, not socially pointed enough, and performed in a German accent sadly lacking in guttural bite.

However, the evening perked up with Die Orchidee im Plastik Karton, a skit based on a German language lesson in which absurd phrases are taught by a schoolmarm at a blackboard while a troll-like chorus of men in ludicrous Bavarian shorts develop the theme of each phrase in stuttering, stylised dance patterns, matched by clever music created by electronic tinkering with the words. The phrase "hin und zuruck" (there and back) prompts a salaciously comic sequence of graded pelvic thrusts. And "Oho! der lange Zigarillo macht die Finger lang und exquisit" produced an avalanche of exquisitely camp synchronised manners that brought the house down.

The Gandini Juggling Project also takes its raw material from low culture - the circus - harnessing it curiously to art-house dance performance. Its new show purports to honour the life and work of the greatest juggler this century, one Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931), whose rise to fame paralleled that of Mussolini. Cue a soundtrack of Italian street life in the 1920s, bursts of political speeches and slide projections of fascist troops. Meanwhile, live performers attempt to give a flavour of Rastelli's fabled tricks, which chiefly hinge on doing a lot of things at once, like bouncing a football on your head while rotating a hoop on one foot and juggling four torches. Clever, but it leaves me cold. The greater fascination was to work out which of the specialist props was a Radical Fish, which a Renegade Fathead and which a Fergie Bag. They were named in the programme. I kid you not.

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