For whom the bells toll

The Chitrasena Ensemble's London programme is enough to give folk dancing a good name, says Clifford Bishop
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The Independent Culture
Folk dance, we feel, is for nutters and tourists. Most of us would rather have a Moonie than a Morris dancer in the family. Moonies don't wear bells. Abroad, though, as somebody once said rather less accurately about the past, is another country. There they do things differently, and so can we. The shackles of good taste are off and we queue excitedly at the African village to see the "authentic" native dances which in fact are the likely forerunners of the Morrismen. Or we may go to a Sri Lankan demon dance, where they can wear as many bells as they like.

As the world shrinks, so does our taste in what we take seriously. So when something profound and serious comes along with all the colour, smiles and baubles of an airport gift shop, it is easy to miss just how good it is. There is actually a moment of shock early on in the Chitrasena Ensemble's programme of Sri Lankan dance, after an invocation to the gods and a bizarre lollop undertaken by two men in bird masks, when you suddenly realise you're watching something special and rare, and not just some scraps of nicely costumed tourist entertainment.

The dance that works the switch is the Gajagga Vannama, in which six women backed by two drummers suggest the movements of a sacred elephant. It's a simple dance, which successfully treads the seductive, vanishingly fine line between asceticism and sensuality. Later in the programme there is a piece called Water Girls, which doesn't feel like a performance at all, but rather like accidentally stumbling across some women at a well and, slightly sheepishly, hiding to watch. The lack of stylisation in Water Girls only emphasises its grace and, despite some sub-Bollywood mime, the overall effect calls to mind not just Sri Lankan water gatherers, but all those women worldwide who work too hard to be able to afford any wasted movement and have evolved an unconscious beauty in their economy of effort.

Most of the evening, however, is devoted to more complex traditional forms extracted from the 2,500-year-old dance tradition which Chitrasena almost single handedly rescued from decline in the 1930s. His problem was to find a way of putting on stage dances that were not in themselves discreet performances but organic parts of religious festivals that might last a week or more. In fact, this is a very long programme and as dance follows dance, you sometimes fear that he's forgotten to take anything out. Certainly the evening could be pruned. But Chitrasena's success can be measured by the Ves, a spectacular truncated ritual in which the men of the company transform themselves into walking wind chimes, with jingling head dresses, chest plates and arm and leg ornaments. Their every movement makes an extra, percussive counterpoint to a display of drumming that sounds like Armageddon under the direction of Buddy Rich.

The rhythms govern Sri Lankan dancing - everyone in the Chitrasena Ensemble has to be able to drum. Each type of drum beat has an associated step and an associated mnemonic, and dancers and drummers may cue each other with a Tamil scat before flying into action, which adds an almost jazzy air of improvisation to the performance. If anything the drums could be amplified.

There are moments during the rituals in the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka when it feels as if you own teeth are going to join the Buddha's as part of the temple collection. The Chitrasena drummers provide all the excitement, speed and precision you could ask for, but without that actual sense of physical danger that comes from feeling every organ shake and hoping your eyeballs stay in. Of course, it's probably different on stage and certainly the company's leading dancer, Upeka, has such a great technique that she sometimes appears to be standing still and just letting the beat vibrate her across the floor. Pure pneumatics.

n Sadler's Wells, London EC1, until Saturday (0171-278 8916)

Clifford Bishop