Sadler's Wells not full of toffs - official

DANCE
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The Independent Culture
IF "TOFFS" have ever frequented Sadler's Wells, they stayed at home on Tuesday when the youthful, Yorkshire-based Phoenix Dance presented a triple bill as part of the Dance Umbrella festival. No toffs - but plenty of yoofs were in evidence: black, white, dreadlocked, shaven-headed, as well as pert student ballerinas and, more surprisingly, ordinary-looking teenage boys. Phoenix, whose core membership is drawn from the city of Leeds, has always presented the most accessible face of contemporary dance. Now in its 15th year and fielding a clutch of black dancers of outstanding verve and style, it seems to have achieved almost cult status. If the company has a message it seems to be that the pursuit of excellence can be not only fun but cool. Not even the dimmest politician could take issue with that.

The current programme shows the company in three distinct modes: fun and funky, art-house mainstream, and experi- mental - not all completely successful. The first piece, Never Still, by Phoenix's own Chantal Donaldson, plays up the group's trademark athleticism in a light-hearted study of girl and boy gangs, who size up, flirt with and eventually shrug off their opposite numbers. Advanced technique allows the group to pull off some beautifully fluid gymnastics with great polish, all the while maintaining an illusion of carefree abandon. Casually clever stuff.

Philip Taylor's Haunted Passages is another world, using Benjamin Britten's Lachrimae to set a tone of sombre, sometimes nightmarish introversion. A sleepless woman and two ghouls from her imagination dance a spiky, fluttery pas de trois of the greatest delicacy and precision. It should be stunning, but the quirkily humorous touches - tremolando hands and vibrato knees - are jarringly at odds with the music: in the final moments Britten's score reaches a sublimity that the dance - though beautiful - fails to match. Choosing great music to choreograph has pitfalls.

Such issues might have been addressed head-on in the advertised highlight of the programme: a major collaboration between Orphy Robinson, the jazz- funk musician, and two Phoenix choreographers, artistic director Maggie Morris and Gary Lambert. The idea behind Movements in B was a good one - to create a true fusion of live arts, with musicians on stagealongside dancers, and movement springing directly from the structures and textures of the music. But real life is always messier than storyboards, and Movements in B turned out to be messier than anything seen at the Wells in a long time.

To be fair, the choreography is a pretty true reflection of the music - eclectic, erratic, apparently random, over-long and lacking pace and tension. In a jazz club one might find the boomy grandeur of Robinson and his band (sax, flute, trio of moody scat-singers, and Orphy on vibraphone, drums and tape) weirdly intriguing, but its kinetic equivalent simply does not communicate. When the Phoenix dancers finally get into the groove and improvise, they seem to play only to each other, and eventually the audience loses interest in what seems like a private party. Even a final burst of dynamic solos fails to lift the dance to a satisfying climax.

But rather an ambitious experiment that doesn't quite hit the spot than a gimmick that goes on hitting the same spot to the point of screaming tedium. Streb/Ringside, the work of New Yorker Elizabeth Streb and her team of gymnast-masochists, chose Greenwich Borough Hall last weekend as the site for their extraordinary exploits. Streb is interested not in bodies per se, but impact: the point at which those bodies hit a hard surface, be it a wall, a floor, or another tensed-up body.

You could call it dance-theatre of cruelty, for its chief object seems to be to make the audience wince. "We dance, you sweat!" is the group's gleeful motto - and we surely do, as unprotected male and female figures in leotards swallow-dive from a giant trampoline to land - th-wummmmp!! - horizontal on a thin rubber mat or - th-wackkk!! - sitting bolt upright on a wooden platform. All surfaces are wired for sound, so that we feel every impact in our own bones and ligaments.

Ah me. After the initial gasp-response this spectator tired of such extravagant assaults on the senses. Looking out for broken noses, I thought I counted three.

Phoenix: Brighton Gardner Arts Ctr, 01273 685861, Wed & Thurs. 'Streb/Ringside': Nottingham Playhouse, 0115 941 9419, Sat.

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