DANCE / The community spirit: Judith Mackrell reviews Make-Make and White Bird Featherless, two new works from the touring Siobhan Davies

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The Independent Culture
THERE is a tribe in north Queensland whose people used to pick the lice off each other in a festive circle dance; a society in New Caledonia where merchants used to dance as they showed off their goods.

In Siobhan Davies's new work, Make-Make, her six performers also constitute a closed dancing community - a community where movement isn't just to do with recreation or display but is the stuff of life, a busy and necessary form of communication.

The sense of an enclosed world that is so strong in this dance comes partly from the design. Water streams down a lit plastic backcloth and the stage space has been deliberately limited to a 6 x 8m patch. No one is going anywhere. The music, too, is a vocal mix of sounds from very contained and very specific locations - Celtic keening, Pygmy polyphonies and Inuit game songs.

Yet Davies isn't, in a fit of the National Geographics, trying to create some ersatz primitive clan; for, if the image of the tribe is strong, it's also universal - as much a spiritual as a geographical concept. The dancers are knit together by a shared language of movement and by their physical and emotional closeness. And, though the huge range of gestures through which they speak derives partly from primitive work movement - kneading, winnowing, knotting and weaving - it also constitutes an astonishingly complete and varied means of expression.

The dancers gabble, console, meditate and question with their hands and arms. In their larger movements, too, they seem engaged in very public rapport. Though their limbs curve and stretch in a manner that is powerful, purposeful and impassioned, the movement never ranges off into space. The dancers remain continually aware of each other and frequently choose to move in pairs or knotted groups.

Rarely do you see choreography that looks so close to a live organic language, which is also so rich in visual detail and sensual charge. For those qualities Make-Make is an astonishing piece. Yet there are moments when its movement also seems too like life for its own good. A brief formal pasage where the dancers form intercutting lines suddenly makes you register the absence of surface pattern and order in the piece, and even to wish that more artifice had been imposed on its naturalism.

Yet the second work in the programme, White Bird Featherless, totally redresses the balance with its spaciousness and clarity. The title comes from an 18th-century riddle which is sung by a counter-tenor as part of Gerald Barry's accompanying score. Based on Handel, the music combines a tense, purposeful precision with a teasing element of erotic fantasy.

The dancers are dressed in uniform white - hints of the 18th century in their quilted bodices and billowing sleeves. They move across a checkerboard of lighted squares, and brief suggestions of a fencing stance or graceful sexual encounter give substance to the work's evocation of a playful, dangerous and very knowing aristocratic world.

What seems at stake is a tension between civilisation and passion.

Davies's movement is audaciously fluid and rangy, the dancers often race the stage in reckless flurries of motion. Yet the headlong flow of the dance is frequently arrested into bright, crystalline shapes, its rhythms measured out by fleet, crisp footwork and its energy tamed by four-square configurations of dancers. The combination is both ecstatic and sophisticated and, performed with a rare sense of celebration by its cast of six, it makes for heady, exciting and uncannily resonant dance.

The Siobhan Davies Dance Company is in Sheffield tomorrow (The Leadmill 0742 754500) and in Cambridge on Friday and Saturday (Arts Theatre 0223 352000)