DANCE : Preljocaj: magical mystery tourist

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A MAGICIAN never performs the same trick twice in a row, for however deft the sleight of hand, the audience is always less impressed. In dance, the same usually holds true, but the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj defies such conventional wisdom with the cool confidence of a master prestidigitateur. There is a moment in his current show at Sadler's Wells that draws a gasp of disbelief. And then the moment repeats, again, again and yet again. Gasps subside into silent head-shaking. We still can't see how it's done.

The moment (the lightning levitation of one man, prone on the floor, into the arms of another) is part of a fast, silent and deadly duet, Un Trait d'Union, an illuminating study of the tussle for power in personal relationships. Apparently Preljocaj dreamt the levitation routine and then worked at making it a physical possibility. Much of his choreo-graphy feels as if it has been worked out in the head rather than on the body. Single, everyday gestures - the smoothing of a cheek, the ruffling of hair, the act of sitting down and getting up - are sampled in the way a computer samples musical sounds, then spewed out in sequences that accumulate pent-up menace as they gather speed and fury.

The evolution of this pointilliste technique is clear in the much earlier and less effective Larmes Blanches (1986) which again deals with the obscurer complexities of partnership, this time through pairs of Pierrot figures who begin their dance all tickety-boo, with baroque neatness and niceness, and proceed to twist the con- ventions to please themselves, causing disharmony all round.

Preljocaj is not an out-and-out modernist - reference and deference to dance history is always hovering somewhere nearby. Le Spectre de la Rose reveals a taste for luscious abandon that gives a dark new sheen to a classic of the Ballets Russes repertoire. In Fokine's original, a young girl returns from a ball with a rose presented by an admirer. As she sleeps, the spirit of the rose soars in through the window, whirls about in an intoxicating waltz, then disappears into the night (the original of Nijinsky's famous leaps).

Using the same exuberant score by Weber, Preljocaj ingeniously splits the action - the waltz (re-enacting the frivolous events in the ballroom) takes place hazily behind a gauze, while simultaneously the girl in her boudoir engages with the invading "rose" in a state more drowsy than comatose. The sound of shattering glass signals her awakened desire, and the ensuing carnal struggle - involving an energetic clashing of chests - is more explicit than Fokine could have dared in 1911, but entirely appropriate. In Le Spectre Preljocaj has marked out his own distinctive territory of dark desire. Here's hoping it will gain ground on British stages.

Earlier in the week at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Transitions Dance Co paid tribute to a guiding light of contemporary dance, the late Bonnie Bird, in an evening of six varied works created by six choreographers, all young dancers just starting out. Best of the bunch was Public Place, Private Thoughts, a large ensemble piece by Yolande Snaith which humorously lays bare the feelings of a crowded waiting room. Exaggerated politeness ("No, please, I really don't mind standing") gives way to stony boredom, prompting individuals to break out into their true selves, twirling chairs, lying on the floor, cartwheeling around the room and propo-sitioning strangers. And all to a lugubrious madrigal by Monte-verdi. Weird, but wonderful.

Ballet Preljocaj, Sadler's Wells, EC1, 0171-713 6000, tonight.