Energetic Beelzebub fails to tempt

JazzXchange | Clore Studio (ROH), London Julian Arguelles | Pizza Express Soho, London
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The Independent Culture

On Wednesday night, the Royal Opera House's Back Garden Project - "a brand new initiative offering independent artists the opportunity to work with the Opera House over a period of eight months", said the programme - presented its first fruit: the premiere public performance by a new, specially formed, company, JazzXchange, led by the choreographer Sheron Wray. LIVE: Love, Invoke, Volunteer, Evolve, by Wray and composer Byron Wallen, was inspired by the Aids crisis in southern Africa, and involved seven dancers plus Wray, and five musicians including Wallen, a jazz trumpeter interested in a variety of ethnic forms.

On Wednesday night, the Royal Opera House's Back Garden Project - "a brand new initiative offering independent artists the opportunity to work with the Opera House over a period of eight months", said the programme - presented its first fruit: the premiere public performance by a new, specially formed, company, JazzXchange, led by the choreographer Sheron Wray. LIVE: Love, Invoke, Volunteer, Evolve, by Wray and composer Byron Wallen, was inspired by the Aids crisis in southern Africa, and involved seven dancers plus Wray, and five musicians including Wallen, a jazz trumpeter interested in a variety of ethnic forms.

First, however, came the ballet of the suits. A slow shuffle of sponsors (Brown, Shipley; merchant and private bankers) entered stage left, forming a hierarchical line of grey, double-breasted gents nervously edging their way to their seats, with the lower ranks holding back and fiddling with their cuffs to avoid breaking protocol. The packed house was expectant, if not hushed, in the unmistakeable manner of those who haven't paid for their seats, and there was such a throng that it looked uncertain whether the crocodile's tail of lesser sponsors would be accommodated at all, leading to even more shuffling and cuff-fiddling.

Wallen's music - heavy on rhythm and light on melody - set the ritualistic scene for the opening dance, in which a pre-lapsarian world of brotherly and sisterly love was conjured up by joyous, bouncy, ensemble movements with an air of innocence reinforced by both the dancers' relative youth and the stylistic poverty of their tie-dyed and macraméd costumes (designed by Shirley Williams). Although the two male dancers - Cubans Leandro Delgado and Alfredo Velazquez - were impressively limber, the overall design of the sequence appeared to aim at, but fall short of by some considerable measure, that perfect balance between classical and vernacular movements found in the work of the Brazilian company Grupo Corpo, who performed at Sadler's Wells recently.

After establishing a metaphor (albeit a rather clichéd and - in view of the complexity of HIV in the Third World - perhaps a perilously untheorised, even insultingly simplistic one) for African life before the epidemic, it wasn't long before the dancers were miming copulation and then dropping like flies. The music went through township jazz, the marimba and percussion-led rural music of Zimbabwe or Uganda, and even Johnny Dankworth-style Sixties soundtrack swing. For all its undeniable skill and energy, it still sounded less like a fully-fledged score than a series of genre gambits.

Once the dancers had succumbed to killer sex, the meaning of the piece became ever more unclear to me. At one, deeply embarrassing point, the music lapsed into silence, leaving a lone female dancer to fret about the stage unaided while her fellows could be heard mumbling from the wings in various languages. For a brief moment I honestly thought that the show was finished and they were all talking on their mobiles to their mums. But it wasn't over yet. Sheron Wray herself took the stage in a power-dressed costume with a devil's tail embroidered down the back, regarding the stricken dancers with an imperious mien. Blind to their imprecations, she threw some 10p coins on the floor and then sashayed off. The movement was repeated, but it still wasn't clear whether she was Beelzebub or the IMF. Even considered - heaven forbid - as a tokenistic outreach exercise - LIVE proved that when it comes to important, issue-based work intuition simply isn't enough: there has to be some intellectual rigour in there, and even dance needs to talk it as well as walk it.

Going straight from the Opera House to the Pizza Express club in Soho to see the saxophonist Julian Arguelles proved ironic, because the opening track of Arguelles' last album ( Escapade, on Provocateur Records), is as dance-friendly as one could wish for: a Frenchified improvisation on a delightfully airy theme that could have provoked choreography by Massine, or a film soundtrack by Truffaut. Arguelles, and the quartet of Martin France on drums, Phil Robson on guitar, and Huw Warren on organ, swung superbly. No one died on stage, but it somehow remained a more moving, and infinitely more natural, experience than LIVE.

Sheron Wray's JazzXchange: Clore Studios, Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), tonight, 28, 29 September

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