DANCE / Where there's a wheel: Mayerling

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THE STAR of CandoCo Dance Company is a man with no legs. Surprised? Physically, David Toole is half a person, yet he holds the whole audience with his strength, skill and musicality. His dance has come on in leaps and bounds - except he does not leap conventionally, but on long, muscular arms. Good choreography has given both him and CandoCo a new lease of life.

CandoCo was launched in 1991; with recent funding, it is now as glossy as any of the medium-sized companies in the independent dance sector. This season it asked Siobhan Davies and Emilyn Claid, both master crafters, to design dance for the company's mix of the able-bodied and those in wheelchairs. The results are uneven. Davies' highly technical dance is a struggle not for the three dancers on wheels but for those on foot. They did not have the juice to make her piece go.

Claid is a champion of dance as entertainment and art. Her Back to Front with Sideshows is jazzy, funny, teasing, sexy. The piece trills with the joy of discovery. You can slow-dance to 'Strangers in the Night' with a man in a wheelchair, if you kneel; you can kiss, have sex, even have a ferocious punch-up on the floor with Jon French, if you pour him out of his chair. Claid stretches the company in the right direction.

More contained is Christy Don't Leave So Soon. Created by Lea Parkinson with Adam Benjamin and Celeste Dandeker, CandoCo's co-founders, its elegance astonishes. Dandeker in a wheelchairs spins away from her two suitors with balletic grace and control. Her chair is no handicap, not artistically.

Toole's artistry is revealed again in Jodi Falk's To Please the Desert, a duet with Kuldip Singh-Barmi. The pair make the piece resonate with loneliness. Toole arcs one of his

arms through space to form a perpendicular line, then brings it to rest on the diagonal. A hand cups his partner's head. The shapes are sharp. Toole's strength amazes as much as his feel for the dance phrases.

CandoCo's quest is to be ordinary. But its special appeal is exploration and invention. The wheelchairs supply meaning as props, legs, ladders, shields. Spinning, tipping, speeding wheels have become an unexpected dance language.

In Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan goes inside the mind of his characters and turns out the contents. This is no fantasy ballet but a grim unfolding of real events that ends in a double suicide. Prince Rudolf, heir to the Habsburg throne, is a raging bull ramming his horns against the locked gate of his life, swiftly disintegrating when he sees there is no way out. For this, MacMillan needed a dancer with a wide breadth of dramatic expression. In Irek Mukhamedov, the former Bolshoi star, he found one. MacMillan revived Mayerling in 1992 especially for him, only to die backstage on the first night.

In the Royal Ballet's production, Mukhamedov is a sullen boy begging his mother, the Empress Elisabeth (Nicola Tranah), not to drive him into a forced marriage. He drags her around, a crab with a lumpen sack on his back. The steps are so ungainly you want to laugh. But the symbolism is clear: he is saying to the woman who bore him that life is a burden.

This moment enlivens a slow first act that confuses with an array of characters all dressed in browns and beiges. In act two, the ballet takes off, despite its wrapping in Liszt's melancholic score. In the bar, the tipsy Mukhamedov is absurd, wheeling around with limbs as loose as his morals. But he sobers up smartly when Mary Vetsera (Viviana Durante), his 17-year-old mistress, enters his bedroom. She is wearing nothing but a slip under her overcoat. A Freudian slip. Like him, she is obsessed with guns - phallic icons, symbols of power over their hopelessly predetermined lives. They're well suited: salacious, pathological, corruptible.

The lecher can't control himself. He rips off the top of her black chiffon negligee, and stares at her breasts. There

then follows a pas de deux of extraordinary eroticism: his hands travel over her body, and he falls to the floor, supporting her hips on his knees. Her back arches. You can almost smell the sex - and it makes you feel like an intruder.

Durante's femininity offsets Mukhamedov's powerful bulk, and they seem a couple in cahoots. But it is Mukhamedov who has to run a marathon: he is on stage all the time, bar one short scene. He is the heavyweight who carries the drama, a perfect performance in one of his best roles. Mukhamedov could so easily look too big for the company. But he fine-tunes his moves so that he is on the same wavelength as the others - particularly Lesley Collier as his dainty but duplicitous ex- mistress, and the four Hungarian separatists. Mayerling is not uplifting, but it is operatic, moving and provocative.

'Mayerling', ROH, 071-240 1066, 19 March, 2pm & 7pm. CandoCo, Oldham Arts Centre, 061-678 8012, 21 & 22 Feb, and touring nationally.