Down to South America, by way of C&A; DANCE

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The Independent Culture
Herding cattle across the Argentine pampas must be a cinch compared with steering 1,000 people to their seats on the opening night of a new West End theatre. On Wednesday they found the place OK, thanks to the RAC's little lamp-post signs in London's Kingsway pointing to "Sadler's Wells at the Peacock". But once inside they stalled. Possibly they were flummoxed by a dress circle that's downstairs, not up; more likely they were just stunned. For the Peacock is quite simply hideous.

Imagine a 1960s office-block-cum-cinema, scruffed up a bit. "Refurbishment Stage One" (a nice, airy box office) is complete, but the rest waits on Lottery funds. This much we were told by a faintly frantic Ian Albery of Sadler's Wells, who had to sweet-talk the audience to cover a seriously late start. But we were on his side. After all, it's the show that counts. And Sadler's Wells (whose proper Islington venue reopens in 1998) has increased its dance audience by 50 per cent in the last two years by putting on some great shows. Unhappily Perfumes de Tango, by the Argentinian outfit Tango por Dos, is not one of them.

As international stage spectacles go, tango has much to offer: exotic origins, upfront sexuality and terrific sartorial style. But tilted fedoras and rakish poses don't hold two-hour's worth of attention. Nor do intermittent belches of dry ice create "the sultry atmosphere of a Buenos Aires nightclub". In the end, a tango show can be measured only by its dancing. And that's what never really takes off.

Things began promisingly with lounge lizards and girls in men's suits trying out steps in pairs with a silkily sinister air. Daniel Binelli's on-stage band presents a beguiling blend of tango's aggressive, four-square rhythms, with zingy piano and smoochy solo bandoneon, a super-expressive kind of squeezebox. The singer Roxana Fontan is poised, mysterious and superb. But the arrival of dancing stars Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs - who also direct the show - does nothing to carry the feeling forward. For all their haughty fervour and flashing heels (hers are four-inch, spangled and pink), the audience has a sense of whiling away the time with dance until the next bit of stage business - which is rather like throwing away the chocolate in order to enjoy the wrapping.

More couples arrive in turn, do their bit of fiendish trip-up work, flash a thigh and depart, supposedly to offer a chronology of tango from bordello to ballroom. But the clothes are such a jumble of styles (including what looks like a bulk-buy of evening wear from C&A) that it's hard to trace any clear development in the steps. A scene involving two men competing for one hungry-looking woman provides a spark of intrigue and a mind-boggling tangle of legs as they dance briefly a trois, but too soon it's back to dull old monogamy. Forever Tango, the last tango show to visit the UK, made much more of the couples' sexual dynamics: the sulky adolescents, the twilight-years romancers, the domestic strifers. That was fun. This is not. It may be that Perfumes just needs time to sharpen up and settle in, but it has been on the road since 1988, so that may be a hope in vain.

Flamenco is another dance culture in which mature artistry wins over youthful athleticism. This is true even when the athlete comes in the delectable form of Joaquin Cortes, the 27-year-old gypsy who might have stepped, half-naked, straight off a canvas by Caravaggio (or, equally, off a catwalk by Armani). The fans who packed the Albert Hall last weekend believed they'd come to see the ultimate in flamenco prowess. Cortes is certainly a tip-top technician, with gorgeously expressive arms, tight rhythm under his heels, and a cracking line in mid-air double twists. The trouble was, he'd invited his uncle along, and uncle, the 50-ish Cristobal Reyes, is something very special indeed. He didn't need to remove his shirt to set pulses racing. After a traditional warm-up of tattoos and posturings, a daringly drawn- out diminuendo of rapid heel-drumming pro- duced the longest and most thrilling hush that vast hall can ever have known. Cortes is not the king of flamenco, but its prince in waiting.

In a good week for Latins, at the ICA the Venezuelan-born Canadian Jose Navas was the first of Dance Umbrella's "Singular Soloists", which is the kind of series in which it is OK to present "work in progress" - even, as in Navas's first piece, "lightning in progress". It's experimental stuff, sometimes disturbing, always ... well, singular, but the quality of invention is high. Navas moves like a cat on speed, taking repetition to the limits of what the audience can bear, but always with a purpose. In Sterile Fields, wearing a translucent, white-paper suit, he conveys a miraculous sense of the body in those last few seconds before death - in transition, as it were, between falling and flying. It was mesmerising, uplifting, and unforgettable.

'Tango por Dos': Peacock, WC2 (0171 314 880), to 2 Nov. 'Singular Soloists': ICA, SW1 (0171 390 3647), to Sat.

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