Dance: Say it loud: they're dumb and proud

Dumb type Barbican, EC2 Re:Orient Place, WC1
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A publicity flyer rarely tells you what you really need to know about a show. Eavesdroppings are more reliable. Said one Barbican usher to another: "Brought your earplugs then? Kevin was sat in the middle of row E the other night and it set his sinuses off." Poor Kevin. The final event in the Barbican's season of international theatre sure was loud. Dumb type, Japan's "leading performance collective", set out to deliver a series of shocks: aural, visual, visceral. Ringing ears weren't in it. I swear I felt sound waves massaging the back of my kidneys.

Over the space of a purgative 80 minutes, spectators are cast adrift from the framework of everyday life by means of a violent build-up of fragmented images and sounds. The intention, apparently, is to create a condition akin to the no man's land between life and death, between being and not being. A vast semi-circular glass screen at the back of the stage is made to suggest the VDU of a life-support machine, its shadowy blips and blinding flashes accompanied by electronic noises of such acute sonic fidelity, you can almost reach out and touch them. Gleaming glass-and-steel trolleys are wheeled on by people in modish white clothes. Is this a catwalk fashion promotion or the inside of a morgue?

As soon as you think you've got the picture, it shifts, dissolves, or blacks out. A girl in a demure white frock turns her back to reveal a naked behind; strobe-flickering figures hurl themselves at each other in what might be a joyful encounter or just as easily a mugging; healthy-looking men in business suits clamber upon the trolleys to become corpses, gawped at and prodded. A nude girl zips herself into a body-bag, only to be reverentially reborn and taught to walk by a team in white coats.

Textual messages intermittently flash up, Telex-like. "How much the science can control the borders of life," says one (you feel the translator could have tried harder here). But they're scarcely necessary. Any "meaning" in this electronically induced chaos lies in the sensations created by the assault. The climax comes in a long virtual- reality sequence, resembling one of those arcade games where you are the driver of a speeding car. Motorway views slide past, Japanese vistas of mountain and forest. Then suddenly the car - your life? - goes into overdrive. Physical reality goes by at a sickening lick, its features blurred in fast- forward. The pitch of the score mounts to an intolerable screech. The screen suddenly whites out into nothingness.

Dumb type presents a nihilistic view of human experience, and one many will reject. At its shallowest level, it's little more than a jamboree for computer nerds. But at best, this group of sound-sculptors and choreographers has come up with a uniquely complex expression of a soulless and soul-seeking age. I hated parts of this show, was bored or irritated for minutes on end; yet its store of disturbing and stimulating images haunts me still.

The opening event of Re:Orient's season of dance from the Pacific Rim at the Place offered rather less of what one might expect from an urbanised, technophile East. In fact, what this mixed programme most forcefully underlined was the folly of trying to attach any kind of label at all. Tiny, carrot-blonde Aki Nagatani from Japan opened with a solo entitled Hero in Myself, yet her movements were more fragile than heroic. At first, her undulations seemed to mimic an elegant water fowl; then she became a hobbled automaton, restricted in expression; and finally she turned into a victim of some invisible force, resembling a figure from a Hiroshige print baffling against wind and weather.

Requiem, a solo from Taiwan's Lin Hwai-Min, was rather less picturesque, taking minimalism almost to breaking point. Spinning on the spot for 11 minutes, head bowed as if under a weight of suffering, dancer Lo Man-Fei swirled out her heavy skins in the manner of a Sufi dervish. The only punctuation was an occasional sharp gasp, or the raising of pleading hands. It was a dizzy- defying feat (achieved without the ballerina's trick of "spotting" with the eyes), yet the effect was lugubrious almost beyond endurance. The work was conceived, we were told, with reference to the victims of Tiananmen Square.

Lo Man-Fei was also the creator of Dark Side of the Moon, a four-hander which was disappointing not only for the fact that it didn't feature the music of Pink Floyd. Its superb production values (acres of silk kimonos, gorgeous lighting) didn't in any way help to tell the promised murder story, the ancient Chinese tale of Rashomon.

Re:Orient season: The Place, WC1 (0171 387 0031), to 3 October.