DANCE / Schaufuss triumphs with beauty and beasts

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The Independent Culture
TO DANCE Albrecht in Giselle, you really have to be able to jump. There's a moment in the second half when the great pounding rhythms of an orchestra at full throttle virtually eject an audience from their seats - you can see shoulders heaving in unison if you snatch a look - and the faithless hero, condemned to dance to death, has to do this enormous music justice. Meanwhile the Wilis, those maidenly spirits who have meted out this punishment, pay absolutely no attention. They incline their heads fastidiously away from his display, presenting him with elegant and supremely indifferent neck muscles. Thanks, but no thanks, they say. On Tuesday Martin James did some marvellous jet-propelled jumps, good enough - almost - to turn a girl's head.

The Berlin Ballet has been in London this week with two programmes directed by Peter Schaufuss, who was sacked two years ago as artistic director of English National Ballet. This is his first visit to London with the company that snapped him up. Here he has done some sensitive work on Giselle, retaining all the hallmark steps, but supplying a psychologically shaky sentimental ending, and adding a rustic shindig in which characters with names like Ekkehard, Irmhild and Heribert are given some show-off party pieces, making the first act much more festive than it usually is. Tuesday's Giselle was Christine Camillo, a dancer whose incredulous Angela Rippon eyebrows and aquiline beauty matched Albrecht's pleasingly (brows and all). Her dancing was technically impressive; her acting less so. The production is as bright and polished as the shiny grapes proudly carried on in their still undistressed laundry baskets by the well-nourished peasantry.

The triple bill began fittingly with Die Offnung (The Opening), a new bit of enjoyable nonsense from Bill T Jones. The score is a hotchpotch of classical hits interrupted by the bleep of an answering machine, snarling lions and the fiendish fingering of a deranged piano-tuner. The dancers come from every ballet or musical comedy you can imagine, performing every step in anybody's repertoire, from perfect arabesques to Kung Fu. Edith Cavell flirts with Prince Siegfried, watched by a Sugar-Plum Fairy or two, a cross-Channel swimmer and a passing plumber. It is exuberant, plotless and pretty pointless, but it makes people smile.

Christopher Bruce's Swansong is more serious. It shows a political prisoner being interrogated by a couple of thugs, and it is brilliant. The thugs perform nonchalant little soft-shoe shuffles and tap-dancing routines, in between bouts of manhandling their victim, and the conversational rhythms of their tap shoes, by a clever conceit, become the language of interrogation. The victim, pinned to a chair, answers them in panicky staccato taps, but his replies are unsatisfactory and as the men stroll out, you know they will be back. Left alone, he performs a dance of yearning and despair, reaching towards a shaft of sunlight while sea birds scream and distant sounds of real life filter in. Back come the thugs bearing canes for another cynical routine, before the canes become murder weapons and the man slumps on the chair. Finally, the thugs freeze, gazing at their prey, while his spirit escapes at last. Philip Chabron's electronic score is powerfully evocative, by turns threatening, jaunty and elegiac, sounding like breathy, echoing pan pipes and tubular bells. Swansong is an intelligent, utterly original use of dance as metaphor.

As the curtain rises on the last piece, the stage appears to be littered with dead frogs. Then the clamouring dawn chorus of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring electrifies them into leaping, posturing, competitive men, hurling themselves into each other, crashing at the solar plexus in furious duels and spewing out a Chosen One to represent them. They hare off and the women appear, not frogs this time, but late summer insects, who flutter and blunder about before forming a centipede in the wake of their elected leader. Their freedom is short-lived, however, and they coalesce into a defensive circle around her when the men launch their assault. However, it is to no avail and mass copulation ensues. Christine Camillo and Martin James dance with ferocious energy, giving an unmistakable lead to the others in isolating and intensifying their individual sexuality. They positively emanate hormones.

This is Maurice Bejart's view of Le Sacre du Printemps, music that has inspired several choreographers since Nijinsky's famous original version so scandalised its 1913 audience that the composer was forced to escape through a lavatory window. Needless to say, they hadn't seen anything quite like this. Bejart has announced that he is gradually withdrawing this piece from the stage, leaving the German company to present its final performances next year in Berlin. It might be worth the trip.

(Photograph omitted)