Dance: Welcome to the danger zone

Streb Barbican, London Rambert Dance Company Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture
We dance, you sweat," proclaim Elizabeth Streb and her company from New York, opening the Barbican's Bite season on Wednesday. But unlike almost every other slogan ever coined to market a show, this turns out to be an understatement. "You wince, we damn-near kill ourselves," would be nearer the mark.

Streb's eight sleek performers, though dancers by training, don't exactly dance, either. They dive, float, bomb, bounce, or crash into hard surfaces at eye-popping speed. Only rarely do feet make contact with the floor. More often it's the full length of the body landing - whump! - flat on its back or - thwack! - flat on its front, the potentially bone-shattering impact heightened by surfaces wired for sound.

Danger is guest of honour at this 70-minute show, a circus act hedged about with cod-scientific inquiry. Cited areas of interest include "Air Territory" (how to get there and stay longer), "Air Impact" (how to accommodate "force" while airborne) and, less fancifully, rebound, inertia, momentum, adhesion, centrifugal force.

This last is nicely exploited in a work called "Fly". Using equipment that might have kept a steelworks in business for a year, a dancer is harnessed to a large gyrating seesaw, balanced to render her almost weightless. Thus she is able to soar like a hawk, run in circles on the ceiling, topple the other dancers like a line of dominoes using only the tips of her toes, and negotiate a human walkway by jogging on their heads.

In "Wall", five dancers occupy and "de-occupy" an upright surface in a series of unlikely ways: edging down it head-first as if attached by weakening suction-pads or piling up on the same spot like a triple-decker sandwich. At the shouted command "Shins!", all five fire themselves at the wall and momentarily stick, Velcro-tight, by dint of simple skin contact between lower leg and wall.

Barked instructions combine with the magnified crash-bangs to make a frantic sound-score. "One! Knees! In! Up! Go!" they yell, and your own knee-joints tense in sympathy. Streb's solo party-piece, dating back to the company's earliest showings in 1985, is uniquely mute. Trapped in a horizontal box like the overgrown Alice, you hear only the violent thuds of the dancer's thrashings as she tries to break out, kicking the ceiling or bouncing on the flat of her back like a plank dropped from a height.

These people have obviously devised techniques for minimising injury, yet the lasting impression of Streb's show is of bodies blasted beyond reasonable bounds, of "scientific enquiry" that's about as necessary and useful as pulling wings off flies.

"Breakthru", billed as the climax of the first half, broke through the danger barrier to a place of pure abstraction and was ultimately disappointing. The horizontal dive through sheet glass, lasting two seconds, did, I concede, "show the effect of action on substance" (the glass, not human flesh, fortunately), but so what? The word is that Streb plans to pursue this minimalist line further. I think she should leave physics to the Volvo dummies and preserve her dancers' toes and thumbs.

Rambert launched its third season at the new Sadler's Wells last week with a programme of rock, rock, rock. Was it wise, though, to open with a work by a first-time choreographer and a part-time poet? I know poetry is the new rock'n'roll and all that, but the combined effect of Elizabeth Old's verse - approachable on the page, I'm sure - and Rafael Bonachela's well-made but dour movement was of a fringe workshop product, not a West End opener.

It took Twyla Tharp's 1981 vintage The Golden Section to turn up the heat - a typical Tharpian blast of ballet-a-go-go set to glamorously brash music by David Byrne. Athletes in gold hurtle on from the wings, raiding every dance language in the book: jetes and pirouettes at rattling speed, jazz shimmies, limbo bends, disco thrusts and fantastically intricate lifts and catches. One woman runs up a ladder of men's backs while another is tossed high in the air to land on a bed of linked forearms. Relentless, exhausting, it just yelps with the joy of being alive.

Jeremy James's Gaps, Lapse and Relapse followed surprisingly well with an engrossing blend of street style and almost clinical attention to detail. But the biggest cheers were for that old Rambert chestnut Rooster, whose male strutting and preening never fails to remind me why I'm glad I missed the Sixties. With a new Rolling Stones tour in the offing, hearing the old songs with Christopher Bruce's satirical visual twist was rich, very rich.

Rambert: Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 863 8000), to Saturday.

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