Dance: Take your partner by the throat

Country Dance The Place, London Hot Mouth Peacock Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Country dancing. It means nothing to most of us, beyond a dim memory of junior PE, when it was too wet to play rounders. Only the names ring distant bells: the Gay Gordons, the Dashing White Sergeant and the Cumberland Reel - or was that a kind of sausage? It's no good. They're lost and gone the way of village bobbies and lardy cake. Gone, leaving nothing but a lingering ache for some imagined pastoral idyll that may never have existed anyway.

Graeme Miller, director and installation artist, is interested in how these faint memories might be made to connect with our modern urban experience, so lacking in formal structures and ceremonies. His project Country Dance is a two-hour fantasy which uses the fractured speech and body language of today's world to create what he calls "an urban, pagan and social event". A terrific idea on paper. The event, sad to say, was scrambled eggs.

The descent to mayhem starts early on. Graeme's eight characters, dressed for a day at the office, are unable to get through even the preliminaries without resorting to violence. Taking a partner prompts a fight over the most attractive individuals, and when they do manage to form a "set" of four facing pairs, the dance is repeatedly stumped because one member drops out, or the parties fall to vicious name-calling ("Terrible shag", "He snores" and "She's a secret bin-bag rifler").

Lining up in single file means only one thing: queuing to claim benefit; get counselling; return faulty goods to the shop. The group does finally succeed in executing a compound figure of eight, but so listlessly that characters blunder into each other, lacking the courtesy or energy to dodge.

Much of this is performed in silence, or to modern aural backdrops such as the rumble of jets or the ring of mobile phones. The promised "transformation" of the Place theatre turns out to consist merely of putting the audience three deep round the edge, the only benefit of which seems to be to stop people sneaking off home before the end.

I lost the plot after the first hour. I can only guess that by expunging his dancework of any recognisable dance steps, Miller was making a statement about how we've lost the means of expressing ourselves as a community. And maybe we have, some of us. But Britain is many communities now. In the closing minutes of Country Dance, when the eight urbanites finally find a semblance of weary cohesion, we get a brief blast from a truly vibrant modern vernacular. As if beamed up from the clubs of Brixton, DJ rappers Iron Eye, Viper and Deema appear. These three don't need to learn steps or take instructions. They are tradition in the making.

At the Peacock Theatre, a group called Hot Mouth was getting much more exciting theatrical mileage from the many tongues and cultures that make New York New York. You thought Woody Allen was the ultimate embodiment of the Big Apple? Then see and hear this. Hot Mouth is essentially an unaccompanied vocal quintet of four glossy, superb, mixed-race New Yorkers, plus one pale, skinny Englishman, who provides a kind of comic ballast. Their musical material flicks with extraordinary deftness through such far-flung styles as gospel, doo-wop, slave shouts, soul and opera, woven into a skein of danced movement and gesture that holds the eye almost as much as it grabs the ear.

Grisha Coleman is the lead vocalist, and also composed most of the songs in the show, though "songs" is hardly the word to describe these fabulous musical constructs. Intricate backing rhythms of precisely-tuned hiccups, yodels, grunts, and sighs are overlaid by funky, full-throated melodies that often seem improvised, though experience tells me this can't be so. And everything's generated by mouth.

The lyrics, too, are something to savour. A lame Cockney rendition of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" prompts a rich fantasia on the theme, including verses from gesticulating Italian and Jewish deli owners ("a bagel is a doughnut dipped in cement," we learn in a helpful aside). Another number set around a cafe table begins by playing on different ways of agreeing: "Ja!", "Yeah!", "Yo!" batted back and forth to great antiphonal effect.

Some songs use intriguing made-up language (a speciality of Jonathan Stone, the woebegone Englishman, who also directs this show); others simply draw on vocal noise. The arresting opening number has the quintet musically inhaling and exhaling vowel sounds that ultimately grow into the word har-mo-ny. Visually, the performers' bodies match this play of breath, clustering and leaning into the musical inflexions as if melded to each sound.

As musicians, the group's technical fluency leaves you gaping. As dancers, I confess there are some you want to watch more than others (I was mesmerised by the bass in the sarong with the liquid hips). Their great achievement is to create a visual adjunct to their music that isn't just movement for the sake of varying the stage picture, but a true, liberated expression of it. Hot Mouth. Remember the name. It's what it says it is, and more.

Hot Mouth: Peacock, WC2 (0171 863 8222) to Saturday.