DANCE / The Quentin Tarantino of dance

Spring Loaded South Bank, Place, London
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"The first image in Doug Elkins's new work for Union Dance company, A Knot Annulled, is Hopal Romans, alone on stage, her right arm raised in a salute pinched from George Balanchine's ballet Serenade. Normally this gesture is performed in unison b y a group of dancers and the resulting array of open, forbidding palms creates an effect that is austere and demure to the point of being vestal. But already, in Elkins's revision, the taped voice of Luscious Jackson is revving up into a song called "Pre lude (this is the end)" and Balanchine's trademark lyrical sweep of the dancer's hand around her face turns into a moment of Vogueing before the bass line thumps her body into a hip-hop string of blows and recoils. Elkins has said that he wants to make d ancethe way Quentin Tarantino makes movies, and this is the closest he comes, both in the loving depiction of the shadow-violence that compelling music can do to a body and in the knowing winks to past styles and past masters.

Later in this "Prelude", a plie, a deep knees-bent squat also taken from ballet, flashes in front of us almost subliminally before it turns into the slow, explicit, knee-oscillating, thigh-grinding "butterfly" that came from Jamaican dance halls. Voguingand Balanchine, whining and plies: the message seems to be that it's all the same thing, with different attitudes. A message reinforced by the music, which mixes Urban Species with arias from Don Giovanni. In fact it is the Mozart that inspires some of the most successful dancing, as Michael Joseph, David Nurse and Karl Sullivan conjure up three louche, cigarette-smoking, seen-it-all angels, making wings and halos behind each others' heads the way other people make two-fingered rabbit's ears.

In some of the fastest, rap-based sections, a lack of rehearsal time becomes more obvious. The partnering is tentative, and dancing that should seem dangerous looks, in places, like a run-through rather than a live performance. The dancers aren't entirely confident with the more outre movements yet, either. Elkins has a signature "step" in which one partner goes down on all fours, while keeping his legs stiff, and the other partner dives head-first between his thighs. As the diver's shoulders snag on the back of the catcher's legs, the catcher relaxes, flexes and shoots the diver out backwards like a feet-first human cannonball. Done with confidence, this is surprising and funny. It can even raise a cheer. Here, the diver wasn't so much shot out as extruded. The movement didn't look like the inventive leap, catch and release that it is, but just a slightly clumsy support, which barely got a response.

Given the caution of some of the partnering, the highlight of the opening night was Charemaine Seet's solo, involving kung fu poses, lightning fast flying scissors and apparently impossible changes of direction. A Knot Annulled was commissioned to celebrate Union Dance Company's 10th anniversary, for which they have also revived Soon, a work created for the company by Bill T Jones in 1992. In this elegy to Jones's long-time partner, Arnie Zane, danced to songs by Kurt Weill and one Bessie Smith blues number, the dancers are completely secure, wringing every last tremor of poignancy out of the movement - its sudden flurries, its falls and baffled pauses, and its auguries of being alone.

n The Spring Loaded Festival is at the South Bank and The Place, London until April