DANCE / Rat leaves the sinking ship: Judith Mackrell reviews the Batsheva Dance Company's Mabul at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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WAS IT a hamster or was it a white rat? Midway through Batsheva Dance Company's Mabul ('Flood'), at the South Bank on Tuesday, a male dancer in urban black was slumped in a chair, head bowed and arms outflung. An eerie counter-tenor voice echoed round the dark spaces of the stage and you suddenly spotted a small, pale rodent crawling over the dancer's head. As the latter edged through a painfully slow dance the animal pattered down his torso. My first reaction was startled revulsion - a rat crawling over a sick body. But then the animal started to look suspiciously fluffy. And having reached the floor, it bumbled and snuffled in a way that looked baffled, dear, and very like a pet hamster. The stonier-hearted among us began to laugh. The shock tactic deflated in giggles.

The point about this moment was that it exposed all the lurking emptiness in Ohad Naharin's 75- minute piece. Advertised as a study of the 'madness' of contemporary living, it was full of devices that signalled dislocation, brutality and contradiction. Dancers spat mad and angry monologues against the slow and civilised poignancy of Vivaldi's sacred music: they fired revolvers; they kissed and wrestled with desperate vehemence. At best their gestures surprised or provoked. But for all their solemn posturing about the bedlam of the human condition, there was little going on to make us care.

The reason was largely Naharin's opportunistically muddled methods. Undigested movement metaphors had been grabbed from anywhere, theatrical gestures had been jumbled into a lazy image of chaos, and in its failure to develop a language of its own the piece was effectively dumb. A rare exception - where Naharin created a sustained and absorbing dance image - was an early passage where the 14 dancers moved through a quiet ritual of renewal. To the sound of splashing water, they danced as a collective body - ripples of movement within a single performer eddying out to form currents and counter-currents through the whole group.

At moments like these you saw the strength of the dancers, who came across as committed, disciplined risk-takers. They moved with a raw, tough energy, they could also speak and fairly impressively sing. But if Naharin's choreography hadn't much to say beyond its own showy delirium, it also didn't give the dancers much of a chance to grow. In the work's puzzling finale, the whole company were hymned by a spookily distorted version of Doris Day's 'Que sera sera'. Trapped as the dancers were in Naharin's impersonal and glossily aggressive choreography, it was hard to know whether this implausibly cheery note of resignation was meant for us or for them.

(Photograph omitted)