DANCE: Three down, four to go: another Bront bites the dust

Northern Ballet Theatre Arc Dance Company
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The Independent Culture
In the bereavement stakes, Patrick Bront was not a lucky man. Left to raise an infant family after his wife's premature death, the Reverend Bront was then unfortunate enough to outlive all six of his children. Small mercy that the graveyard backed on to the parsonage garden.

In The Bronts, her new dance drama for Northern Ballet Theatre which I saw in Leeds, the choreographer Gillian Lynne uses the deaths in the household as mere interruptions to the atmosphere of creative energy. Despite - or maybe because of - their cloying melodrama, these interruptions activate little more than the countdown mechanism, prompting a sort of three down, four to go response when, in Act 1, Mrs B expires and tuberculosis claims Maria and Elizabeth.

Eager to play down the intrinsic doom and gloom of the Bront story, Lynne and co-deviser Christopher Gable mould their material into the sort of light entertainment which, over the past decade, NBT has made its speciality. Accessibility is clearly their first and last consideration - if you don't know your Bront history, the beginner's-guide programme notes allow for some speedy mugging up. Structured in 20 scenes over three acts, with a prologue and epilogue, Lynne's ballet is really a series of fast-moving, loosely linked, impressionistic pictures, matched to Dominic Muldowney's easy-listening score.

The Bront children enjoyed a mildly unconventional home life and were given free rein in their artistic pursuits. Here, however, Lynne and Gable's scenario runs into difficulties.

Anne, Charlotte and the pistol-toting Emily, seem far too prim, their individual achievements overshadowed by the antics of Branwell, whose drug and alcohol habits appear to have given rise to a permanently manic disposition, best illustrated in Lynne's boxing-club scene, which features the punch-drunk Branwell engaging in fisticuffs with a succession of burly Yorkshiremen.

Emily's one and only novel, Wuthering Heights, does however get a look in - Lynne devotes an entire tableau to a rather overwrought duet for Cathy and Heathcliff. But she treats them in much the same manner as all the other characters in this biopic-ballet and, having established each key relationship, she then trades in fleeting glimpses. And because her vocabulary - that slick mix of ballet and contemporary movement, so suited to musicals but so bland on the dance stage - is employed by all and sundry, the individuality of the characters is rapidly diluted. The detail which can make biography compelling is entirely missing from The Bronts: this is a production which tries to conjure up Brontland through lots of rolling mists, cloth-capped locals and serried ranks of dancers pretending to be bracken-covered moors and heather. Eccentricity is toned down, made cute and lovable.

So to Saints and Shadows, Kim Brandstrup's latest outing for his Arc Dance Company. Like Lynne and Gable, Brandstrup aims for a cinematic quality in his work. Unlike them, his approach is subtle yet rich. The effect created here by Brandstrup's choreography, Craig Givens's design and Tina MacHugh's lighting - all mottled terracotta - has the spacious luxury and muted elegance of the company's earlier works such as Orfeo (alternating with Othello as the other half of this double-bill).

Although drawing on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, Brandstrup eschews the colour and gaiety of those festivities to concentrate on their strange nonchalance. A sculptural ladder serves as the busy stairway to and from heaven. Returning to the bars and streets where, perhaps, they met their deaths, Brandstrup's characters re-enact past incidents. At its best, the work's phrases of snake-hipped voluptuousness and mercurial footwork suggest a world of dream- like flashbacks.

Ian Dearden's score has a Latin American flavour, intelligence synthesised to the themes of the dance, but it occasionally falls into the same trap as Muldowney's music - perfect accompaniment for the close-up drama of film or television, perhaps, but too thin and distant for live action.

n`The Bronts' is at Darlington Civic Theatre, 14-18 March (box-office 01325 486555) and then tours. Arc Dance Company performs `Orfeo' and `Saints and Shadows' at Sadler's Wells tonight (box-office 0171-713 6000)

Sophie Constanti