Dance: What a shellfish bunch

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The Independent Culture
98.4% DNA - being human

Edinburgh St Bride's Centre

Dutch National Ballet

Edinburgh Playhouse

In direct contrast to its human counterpart, the male canary grows extra brain cells when it wants to mate. It needs them to make its song more complex and therefore more attractive to females, who seem to appreciate a better class of chat-up line. This is one of the things you learn during , in between watching Daniel Witton and Teresa Blake, also known as Desoxy, walk on walls, swing from ropes and generally recreate as much of the evolutionary process as it's reasonable to expect from two people in Lycra. (They're especially good at crustaceans.) This is like watching two kids playing doctors and nurses, with the doctor's name as Moreau. Unfortunately, either they or I lost the thread towards the end, and I came away with the vague impression that being human was something to do with cellos.

All art, claimed Walter Pater, constantly aspires to the condition of music. But Walter Pater never saw the choreography of Hans van Manen. The most influential dance maker in the history of Dutch National Ballet is, if not a stranger then on barely nodding terms with melodic impetus or rhythmic subtlety, and seems to hear oompahs in the music of Arvo Part. His ballets mostly aspire to the condition of parade-ground marches - even the duets, thanks to his habit of doubling up dancers' movements so that they mirror rather than complement each other.

The marches may be austere and grandly patterned, as in Metaphors, the first piece in the Edinburgh Festival's van Manen retrospective. They may be punctuated with arabesques - one of the most powerful, from Metaphors, sees Larissa Lezhnina and Nathalie Caris support each other around the stage like two blind, wingless Victories - or executed in a crouching, cartoon-Valentino prowl. Sometimes they are a queasy mix of the disturbing and absurd. In 5 Tangos, to the fiery, wheezing, bandoneon-led tunes of Astor Piazzolla, a group of men in black tights strut back and forth, lifting their legs high, knees at right angles and feet flat as though climbing giant stairs. When they turn they try to twist their calves into knotted ropes. Yet van Manen invites us to find something erotic in this division of stormtrooper Max Walls.

Like too many classically trained choreographers, he imagines that the tango's dangerous seductiveness is easy to appropriate. But ballet evolved in the courts and theatres: it was designed to be beautiful, and destined to be proud. Tango came from the slums of Buenos Aires. Its pride is the defiance of the beaten, and it is beautiful by accident - a wild art grown from the rutting and braying of those who feel they are marked for slaughter. Classical tango is almost an oxymoron.

It is also a perfect example of van Manen's method. He sets up a classical framework, introduces a deviant element, and then fetishises the deviation until it becomes the erotically charged focus of the movement. In Trois Gnossiennes, one of the ballerina's feet is held so markedly bent, so defiantly unextended, that it looks like a deformity. So of course it is pampered and cradled by her partner. He caresses it, makes his hand into a stirrup, a cushion and a pedal for it. Momentarily, until she stretches it again, it is the hinge on which everything turns. A similar, but even more powerful charge is generated in Metaphors, by having a traditional pas de deux danced by two men, culminating in the one being lifted, ballerina-style, on the other's shoulders. The dancers of Dutch National Ballet are fearless, quick and muscular, and whatever his faults, van Manen know how rich and varied a palette bodies like these provide.

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