Dance: Once upon a time in Woking ...

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The Independent Culture
Woking, Commutersville of the South, is not a place you expect to find an offshoot of London's hugely successful "Dance Umbrella". And this is patently both the attraction and the challenge for Umbrella supremo Val Bourne.

Back to back in Woking's gleaming shops-and-theatre complex, bracing acts from Canada, Israel and the US line up between mainstream regulars such as Rambert and English National Ballet. And the locals get their money's worth in other ways too, like having cult choreographer Lea Anderson (founder of the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs) martial 50 volunteer dancers in a site-specific creation.

The site in this instance had to be Woking's single spectacular feature, its vast, galleried, steel-and-glass-domed shopping mall, the Peacocks. In Bubblehead, Anderson's ploy was use all four storeys as a stage set on which to take lunchtime shoppers by stealth rather than by storm. The first suspicion of "performance" occurred on an escalator: people gesticulated, gawped, balanced on the stair-rail and violated shopping decorum. But the buggy-pushers and sandwich-munchers only looked up for a moment.

Next, there was something funny going on in the transparent lifts, and for the next half hour strangely dressed pairs kept popping up all over: two women in surgical coats doing a tango prowl outside Hallmark Cards; a pair of ponytailed schoolgirls jiggling up and down near M&S; couples done up as goths, punks, Seventies dudes, Canadian mounties, all acting strangely - at least, strangely for Woking, Surrey. In Leicester Square they'd pass unnoticed.

For the duration of Bubblehead - almost an hour - I was unsure of Anderson's motives. Was she thumbing her nose at surburban mores, or giving Middle England something to snigger at? While Karen Carpenter smooched out "Sing, Sing a Song" on the Peacocks' PA , the dancing pairs were clearly plugged into some other, livelier rhythm on their shared Walkmans, which dictated their alienating steps and behaviour. Any spectator who engaged with this show was automatically baffled by and excluded from it; it's hardly guaranteed to bring new audiences to dance. "See them lesbians down there, they're off their heads" was the most potent comment I overheard.

Woking's reception of English National Ballet's touring programme, "Tour de Force!", was ecstatic by comparison. Like the Royal Ballet, ENB has taken to splitting into two for its annual trip round the provinces. But as a company with tight box-office considerations, it has developed a surer, popular touch. While the Royal's "Dance Bites" can seem like an upmarket choreographic try-out, the ENB gives its public what it wants: familiar ballets, and stars.

The "bleeding chunks" format, in which highlights of 19th-century works are wrenched from their context to stand alone, is standard fare in ballet. It can work, at the expense of subtlety, if the dancers exaggerate every nuance of character - Raymonda's imperiousness, Kitri's coquettishness - to prevent each one becoming merely a sequence of technical tricks. Yet the fact remains that these great climaxes of classical dancing rely on a structural build-up of steps for their proper effect. The no-hands fish-dive from The Sleeping Beauty is merely a circus stunt without the solo variations which precede it, which generate the anticipation of a grand finale. And so it appeared here, despite some fine dancing.

Monica Perego was short on emotional grandeur in the truncated duet from Nutcracker, and for Erina Takahashi's Beauty it seemed to be all over before she'd begun. Only the flirty pas de deux from Don Quixote was given with all the proper trimmings, with Lisa Pavane giving the arch glances and fan flickings their due, as well as a run of near-flawless fouettes with a few triple spins tucked in for good measure. The fine- limbed Laurentiu Guinea made a raffish suitor with his great, lanky leap. But the star - since these affairs inevitably turn competitive - was the compact Cuban dancer Yat Sen Chang. For fast-snipping scissor jumps, for the neatest landings, for sheer cheery uplift, he got the audience's vote every time.

If the grand pas from Raymonda were to disappear forever from all British companies' repertoires I doubt anyone would grieve. But the statutory gold tutus go down well, and that seems enough to justify its inclusion on such a bill as this. More worthwhile was the substantial closing piece by ENB's own Christopher Hampson. His Country Garden matches eight orchestrations of English folk tunes by Percy Grainger with eight, alternately chirpy and heart-swelling dances for four women and five men. Fresh, expansive, elegant and fun, this showed ENB at its popular best.

`Tour de Force!': (0171 581 1245) touring to 10 April.