DANCE / Previous convictions: Judith Mackrell on the Stephen Petronio Company in Half Wrong Plus Laytext at the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
STEPHEN Petronio creates some of the fastest, sexiest and riskiest choreography around. Yet when he comes to using one of the most challenging and exhausting passages of music ever written for dance, he ducks the issue and literally has his dancers lie down on the floor. Half Wrong Plus Laytext - premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday as part of the Dance Umbrella season - is choreographed (mostly) to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. It is also Petronio's version of the joint Rite which he and Michael Clark embarked on a couple of years ago. That project foundered and both went on to create their separate interpretations. Britain has already seen Clark's Mmm . . . and has for the most part been ecstatic. Petronio's Half Wrong Plus Laytext is less of an event.

One of the most obvious points of comparison lies in their treatment of the Chosen Maiden's shattering dance to death. It's the point in the score where most choreographers (and dancers) falter - unable to match the terrible stamina of Stravinsky's music. And there's an honesty, and realism, in Petronio's willingness to let his dancers lie doggo. It's also riveting to simply watch the two pianists fight the music out between them (Petronio uses the piano rather than the orchestral version of the score). Yet you can't help thinking of the astonishing feat that Clark pulled off at this point, with his dancer Joanne Barrett - the vision of a body both dignified and terrifyingly abandoned as it tests itself against the limits of physical and spiritual endurance.

For Clark, though, Mmm . . . was a highly personal, make or break work. It was the dance everyone had been waiting for him to create. For Petronio, whose career has been more consistently high-flying, Half Wrong seems more of an exercise. As pure movement it appears to mark an evolution towards a terser and more starkly linear style then his previous headlong fluidity. There are marvellous and unsettling things in this, such as a diagonal of four woman tensing their bodies against a brooding passage of music, straddling the ground and arching away from it in a dangerously erotic trance. Overall there's a thrilling, taut ferocity to the stretch of the dancers' limbs. Yet Petronio's creative heart doesn't seem to be fully engaged - there's not that reckless overspill of ideas you get in his best work, that urgent cramming of movement upon movement.

His treatment of the work's themes - sex and death - also doesn't seem particularly individual, though Petronio makes gestures towards a brash contemporaneity. In one of Stravinsky's more hypnotic, menacing passages the piano music is overlaid with the stoned musical stupor of Pink Floyd. For the second half of the dance the movement competes with a fluorescent computer print-out of some disjointed dirty prose - snatches of erotic suggestion and paranoid nightmare. Yet unlike Clark's collage of music and imagery in Mmm . . . such additions feel like bits of willed bravado, rather than intimations of feeling and fantasy genuinely explored.

It's less important to compare Petronio with Clark than with Petronio himself, though. The other piece in the programme, Previous (a 'look back' at the 1986 work Walk-In), shows what audaciously satisfying dance he can make. No personal agenda appears to be at work, yet the choreography seems much more intimately connected with its maker. There's a breathtakingly sensual moment where Petronio, almost sullen with erotic emotion, helplessly nuzzles his partner's head. In passage after passage there's an equally breathtaking headiness of speed and profligate invention. And most arresting is the work's teasing vacillation between chaos and order. Out of a riot of whirling, rippling limbs there suddenly emerges a pattern of disciplined unison, out of a ricocheting contraflow of impulses crystallises one elegantly held shape. This is dance on which to exercise the eye and brain. It's also dance simply to get high on.

'Dance Umbrella' runs at venues around the country until 11 November (Information: 081-741 4040).