Dance: Those little ones really have to be watched

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The Independent Culture
Jeremy James & Co

The Place, London

The Smallest Room

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

The choice of choreographer Jeremy James to open the Spring Loaded season of new British dance raised eyebrows among some of my dance-critic colleagues. There are surely bigger names on the roster - like Phoenix and Random and the Richard Alston group, the sort of outfits that reliably fill the South Bank halls. Why lead the shoal with a minnow when you could have led with a whale?

You had only to look at Tuesday's audience for the answer. Dancers, scores of them. Jeremy James is an in-house secret, a specialists' specialist, the one they want to watch. Over the past 15 years, James himself has been a player in most of the A-teams. He started out classical, dancing what he calls "all the midget roles in ballet", then moved on to Rambert, Siobhan Davies, DV8. But now he's struck out on his own, and his style resembles nothing and no one. It's intricate and polished, yet it wears its craft so lightly that it wouldn't look amiss in a night club.

At The Place, he showed a triple bill whose titles left lots to the imagination. Juice is a trio for three women which starts in silence with a solo for Tammy Arjona, a tiny darting figure whose knee and hip joints seem to be attached differently from most people's. Arms behave like legs, walking the floor, or flung out like a shot-putter's; hips swing, swivel, and lurch out of true. More figures appear, their body parts weighted and heavy: heads loll on necks, joints cave in, gravity tugs. Yet much of this happens at bone-snapping speed.

What elevates it to dance rather than anatomical meltdown is the complex rhythmic groove James sets up within these moves, defying the need for any musical soundtrack. That's supplied in the spectator's head until finally a blast of heavy rock kicks in. By contrast Parts, James's new piece, enlists the composer Matteo Fargion and an abstract film to drive the dance along. But again, what starts simple builds to an impressive counterpoint, superbly controlled. Fargion's childish two-note motif grows into mad boogie-woogie, and bodies which at first swivel and tilt as if suspended by a single wire are soon toppling against each other, flexing themselves against the floor, or swinging like the clapper in a bell. The only trouble is, with performance as intricate and demanding as this, you really need to see it twice: once to get the measure of it, then immediately again to revel in its cleverness. I wonder if the Spring Loaded season would consider giving that a go?

The bathroom is a private place, better equipped for singing in than dancing, but The Smallest Room, a touring show adapted from a one-off Brighton Festival event, takes place on a stage set with two plumbed-in bathtubs and a giant freestanding shower. Exploring ideas of privacy and display, two brave and articulate dancers - Becky Edmunds and Charlie Morrissey - explore the full range of preening and cleansing rituals. Each begins naked in the tub, where their splashings and scrubbings combine with Barnaby O'Rorke's improvised cello (played, tongue in cheek I guess, as he perches on the edge of the bath in a towelling robe) by way of orchestration.

You might think hair-washing, toe-nail picking and drying-off gestures would make a meagre dance vocabulary, but in fact the longueurs in the piece occurred when the dancers strayed into neutral dance territory or forced dialogue. Soapside, the story was gripping. There was a nifty duet which looked like a speeded-up study of conjugal habits (who gets to sit by the taps? who keeps getting out and fiddling about and getting back in again? you got it, she does); and there were two fast and funny solos made up of all those things you do in front of mirrors when you think no one else is looking. Best of all there was a spectacular dervish routine under the giant shower, lit by glancing blue halogen beams, whirling a wide halo of spray like a rainbow. In all, a curiously cleansing experience.

: Winchester King Alfred's (01962 827 492), Tues; New Milton Forest Arts Centre (01425 612 393), Thurs. 'The Smallest Room': Manchester Green Room (0161 950 5900), Fri & Sat.