Dance: One foot in the past

DANCE UMBRELLA is celebrating its 20th anniversary in high style. Siobhan Davies's stylish opening programme last week represented the very finest in British contemporary dance and the season now shows off its international guests, beginning with the sage of American post-modernism, Merce Cunningham, who does double-duty as a highlight of the Barbican's year-long "Inventing America" season.

The first of two triple bills began with the 1995 piece Windows, in which the dancers stride stiff-legged to the faintly foetal blips of Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta's Microcosmos. Every individual moment was beautiful but the overall effect was wholesomely bland.

The next course had far more flavour. Cunningham had rustled up one of his celebrated Events, in which the back catalogue is raided to create a fresh perspective on old works. These Events exemplify the 79-year- old choreographer's philosophy that his dances are all cut from the same seamless creative fabric. The breadth of repertoire drawn upon and the last-minute nature of many of the combinations also shows off the awesome versatility of his dancers. They revived the delicious 1964 Winterbranch with enormous wit and style.

Events are, by their very nature, surprising in content and celebratory in tone and that excitement was shared here by the audience which went into the second interval in buoyant, rather skittish mood. A technical delay extended the wait by 20 minutes, which provoked a small drama. A bad-tempered American punter petulantly shouted "Stop coughing! It's an English disease!" Silly man. They began to do it on purpose. Others joined in the fun and soon the stalls sounded like breakfast-time with the Brontes.

The rise of the curtain provided an instant cure. Cunningham's fascination with getting his dancers to move in challenging and unfamiliar ways prompted him to give Rei Kawakubo free rein with costumes for the 1997 work Scenario. The result is a bizarre collection of lycra tubes grotesquely distended by various prosthetic humps - like a gathering of inept shoplifters in a pillow shop. These gingham goitres became a rather irritating distraction. Cunningham is justly famous for encouraging a sexy three-way swing between music, design and dance, but somebody has to be on top and it ought to be dance.

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