DANE / Sex, violence and the turn of the screws: V-Tol - Eden Court Theatre, Inverness; Motionhouse - The Dome, Leeds

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The Independent Culture
THE WARDERS are in a frenzy. They are checking on the inmates. If the prison is in Britain it is probably short-staffed, which would explain the manic roundabout to get the job done. Cell doors are opened and banged shut, opened and shut. One is opened at an inopportune time to expose an inmate being tortured. Too bad. That's life. More important is the warders' party afterwards.

Sex and violence are old hat, but at least everyone has some experience of them, if not directly then through television documentaries and films like Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant and Damage. Well, what themes would you choose if you were only 24, born in Peterborough, probably lived an unexceptional life, most of which was spent dancing? Mark Murphy is the artistic director of V-Tol (Vertical Take-off and Landing), a company not yet two years old, and it is to his credit that he tucks his ambitions rather modestly into the films and television he's seen a lot of. These portray a macho world, and Murphy's is a macho piece.

With Headshot, Murphy and his company of two men and two women slice off a corner of prison life to show how those in charge go round the bend. The piece begins slowly with three prisoners in solitary confinement, so deprived of stimulation that they literally climb the walls. The pace builds as they are whisked out briefly to sun themselves. And then the maniacs take over. They control, torture, kill. And when that's over, they party. It's all in a day's work. A bit cynical, perhaps? Not at all.

Headshot is a work in short, exciting bursts. Athletic tangles of movement are used sparingly, usually close to the floor. The set is part of the dance so that people hang behind doors, come flying out of them, are caught escaping into them. Walls are for climbing and for slithering down - a great way to make an entrance, or quick exit. The vignettes open out, rather than close in, to encompass the party, where a couple explore each other's bodies after an explicit exchange on the phone, and two men's pleasure in each other snaps into a tussle that is quickly defused.

American marching music whips the action from a Wandsworth to Washington DC - or Bogota - where the secret service men and women in dark suits and glasses keep an eye on their presidential charge in the sly way secret service people do. This sequence for all five dancers is an emblem for V-Tol's grounded, knotty style, but its strength is also its weakness: it belongs in another piece, as does the shooting of the two prisoners, repeated twice to a samba beat. Prisoners may disappear in Argentina, spend their last minutes in an electric chair in the United States, or allegedly jump out of windows in South Africa. But shot in cold blood? These two aspects confuse the context of an otherwise cohesive, up-to-the-minute piece of physical theatre. Murphy is a fresh talent on the brink of his best work; with his measured style and cool head, time will take him there.

Another company on the brink of coming good is Motionhouse, an underrated group of three women and two men, choreographed by Louise Richards and Kevin Finnan, who have been growing steadily stronger since their collaboration began in the late Eighties. Arcadio is a meaty piece drawn from the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and set in a semi-rural household living out two cycles: the small one of daily life and the larger one of birth, love, illness, and death.

Richards and Finnan create a magical, self-contained world of ritual and superstition (embodied by a creature with a long tail) nestling under a sensuous amber glow. Two women set long tables with white cloths in parallel, breaking into a joyous dance by fashioning the cloth as a nappy, an apron, a flowing skirt. Later, dancers take it in turns to be born and to give birth. Parallel pairs are the carer and cared for, neatly slipping off and under the tables to swap roles. (As with Headshot, the set, four large tables, takes the movement forward.) Women lift men, men lift men. Role swapping is a natural part of Arcadio so that the woman priest conducting the funeral at the end startles but makes sense. Only when two men embrace does this freedom break down. They seem uncomfortable, the ambiguity of their roles - lovers, or father and new-born son - is never really clarified.

The choreographers anchor the abstract themes in ritual. But 90 minutes is a long time in a metaphysical universe; a shorter piece would eliminate the more abstruse sequences. Nevertheless, Arcadio is a solid, intelligent work that is beautifully performed. It both satisfies and nourishes.

V-Tol, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (0463 221718), 8 March and touring; Motionhouse, The Dome, Leeds, 6 March and touring.

(Photograph omitted)