Dance: Ten fingers dancing

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HERE'S SOMETHING unusual. So much so that - although musicians generally get relegated to the end of reports on dance - the pianist Nikolai Demidenko just has to be an exception for his collaboration with Twyla Tharp. His 10 fingers are without question the heroes of Diabelli, a dance for the concert hall based on Beethoven's 33 variations on a waltz by the Viennese music publisher of that name.

Almost an hour long, with immense variety in rhythm, pace, mood and texture, the score must be the devil to play at any time; but imagine having to do it with your piano at the back of the platform and 10 dancers between you and the audience, and then agreeing to take the timing of the pauses and even, Tharp says, your tempi from them.

Yet Demidenko triumphs, carrying off the music with such style, tone and clarity that the alternate poetry and wit of the score both come over; at times, in the faster, more complex passages, you would swear that he must have double the usual ration of fingers to achieve such speed and brilliance.

Can dancing match this? Luckily Tharp is on form; this is one of her most inventive recent works. Much of it is cast in her more balletic manner, and its frequent returns to her old jauntiness do not look out of place. Big leaps and little jumps, walks, falls, twists and rolls, lifting and carrying, are the main material; plenty of variety, but continuity too. I felt that it would have been more courteous to Beethoven, to Demidenko and to the audience, if Tharp had refrained from making the cast stamp and clap hands, but otherwise the choreography is fluent and entertaining.

The dancers have an easier time than the pianist, since only rarely do all 10 of them take part together. In most sections just one or two couples occupy the stage in duets, evasions or confrontations, while the others wait at the side. Some of the dancers are old hands with Tharp, others are new to her work, but you would hardly guess which, so well matched are they in quality.

In his first work for dance, the American fashion designer Geoffrey Beene has dressed the cast aptly and amusingly in a sleeveless jumpsuit adaptation of black-tie evening wear (did Tharp nudge him in this direction with memories of her 1971 work Eight Jelly Rolls?).

Commissioned jointly by the Cite de la Musique, Paris, the Barbican Centre in London and Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City, Diabelli had its premiere in Paris a week ago. It now comes to London for just two performances. Whether the more traditional hall will suit it better than the handsome, hi-tech Cite remains to be seen. On the question of whether the dancing adds to or detracts from Beethoven's masterly score, my mind is still open. Why not make your own decision?

John Percival

At Barbican Hall 18 & 19 June. Booking: 0171-638 8891