DANCE / Why make-make us feel so little?

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THE Siobhan Davies Dance Company's latest offering at the Riverside Studios is awesomely theatrical. The sets for both pieces are unusual, the costumes beautiful, the lighting creative, and the sound original. The dancers, too, are excellent. Why, then, did I ache so much to be moved?

Siobhan Davies, who is 42, is one of Britain's most acclaimed choreographers. In 1988 she founded her own company after a distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, which she helped to found in 1969. Make-Make and White Bird Featherless, her newest works, are being presented as part of the Dance Umbrella festival.

We sit in darkness for a minute as the sound of falling rain fills the auditorium. The lights go up - from a row on either side, not from the top. A taut plastic screen is revealed on which heavy rain is rushing as though against a window pane. The rich sounds of tribal chanting supersede the drumming rain. This is Make-Make, which the programme describes as an island, but is actually more like a South American rainforest.

The six dancers move along liquid lines. The motion flows through the arms, which cradle, circle, bend, pick, and harvest. Smooth, very smooth.

This is good physical theatre. The chanting fades into a babble of women praying together, the turquoise screen turns silvery, the light casts a watery air, the dancers slide. But when on earth is something going to happen?

Siobhan Davies rejects the idea that dance should tell a story: the image is what is important, and improvisation is a way of achieving those images. The result in this case is the total absence of dramatic tension. So we sit, marvelling in our heads at the artistry of Make-Make. But what are we supposed to do for food?

White Bird Featherless is even more mysterious. Everything is white. The floor is a chequerboard lit from below. The costumes have a hint of the medieval with padded bodices. The light is mid-day bright. A green pear and red apple provide the only splash of colour. By now we are well into the Arctic, especially our feelings. The music, for two pianos and voice from a modern opera by Gerald Barry, verges on the self- parody, and jars. It's cold, and there is nought for our comfort.

This time the dancers are languid, drowsy as if on Valium. Shoulders droop and straighten again as if the dancers have nodded off in the middle of a meeting and snap awake a little too sharply. If they are going to sleep on stage, what about us? Fortunately, three excellent solos give us a jolt, but they are too short.

Make-Make, it must be said, has some merit. But what is White Bird Featherless for? Both pieces are about 30 minutes long, so there is not too long to wait before tearing into the night in search of nourishment.

Siobhan Davies Company: Leadmill, Sheffield (0742 754500), Tues; Cambridge Arts Theatre (0223 352000), Fri, Sat; Newcastle Playhouse (091-232 7079), 27, 28 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)