The Critics: Dance - Martha Graham called it her 'woollens phase' ...

Martha Graham Dance Company Barbican, London Ultima Vez Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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Should we be surprised when a legend fails to live up to its promise? Martha Graham - mother of modern dance, pioneer of women's art, giant of modernism all round - died eight years ago at the age of 97 and her dance company affects to go on as if she'd never left them. "Tell me what to look for," begged my non-dance literate friend on the company's opening night at the Barbican - its first London appearance in more than 20 years. "Treat it as a history lesson," I said, then instantly knew that was rubbish.

We cannot begin to imagine the electric shock Graham delivered to audiences of the 1930s and 1940s. "Life today is nervous, sharp and zigzag," Graham explained when she set up her company in 1929; "the old expressions cannot give it form." So she invented a new language of movement - ferocious, spare, rooted in the gut - and chucked out the chintz of traditional ballet themes in favour of fierce interpretations of Greek myth informed by Freud and Jung. When dancers referred to the virago's Manhattan studio as the "House of Pelvic Truth", it was only half-mocking, half in awe.

The best bits of the Barbican programme were the early solos Graham once danced herself, so early as to avoid anyone making odious comparisons today. Yet my guess is that the grande dame would have cheered these reconstructions. Satyric Festival Song of 1932, what she called her "woollens phase", features a dancer in a caterpillar-striped knitted tube (designed by the choreographer, whose influence also extended to fashion) and is gloriously, fizzingly comic - an adjective that doesn't naturally attach to Graham. Fang-Yi Sheu strutted, wiggled, swished her mane of hair like a fifth limb, and made a physical show of mirth into such a sexy, infectious movement motif that the audience laughed aloud.

Deep Song, of 1937, was more the sort of thing we expected - a protest against the Spanish Civil War, a sort of one-woman Guernica in a cocktail dress. Terese Capucilli wrenched every last drop of torment from its jagged phrases, dancing on, around and oppressively under a white wooden bench. Errand Into the Maze (1947) continued in this vein, the narrative of Ariadne's tussle with the Minotaur used to explore a woman's complex fear of sex. But for all the subtleties of execution and design (including Isamu Noguchi's bare tree modelled on a woman's pelvic bone - oh yes), its convulsed intensity drew muffled titters from some sections of the house. I think it was the Minotaur that did it - a totem pole of a near- naked man with horns and an odd tendency to pogo. He needed more testosterone to carry it off. But it was the most famous work on the bill, Appalachian Spring, that really let the side down. With its Oklahoma! theme and its fresh, optimistic folk-inspired score by Aaron Copland, this piece ought to be the most approachable of the lot. But again, the men were weak (hard to imagine the bonneted evangelicals swooning over this limp Revivalist preacher) and the music appallingly piped. Is it really beyond the budget of a company this size to hire 13 musicians for the night?

Whatever the strengths of its repertoire (Graham left a staggering 180 works) a dance company has to be more than a preservation society, for eventually the spirit will fade. The evening ended with another war-piece, Sketches From Chronicle (1936), in which incendiary squadrons of women are bullet-fired across the stage under the command of a warrior queen. Yet the piece looked distinctly tamer than it did in Edinburgh a few years back. Graham at full pelt should be devastating.

Though she lived long enough to appreciate the extent of her influence, the lady would weep over some of its wilder manifestations. But Pina Bausch should perhaps share the blame for In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, the latest multi- lingual, multi-media offering from the Belgian Wim Vandekeybus and his cult-company Ultima Vez.

Where Graham explored a woman's perspective, Vandekeybus tries to get to grips with the male psyche. On the premise of examining "that time between dreaming and waking", this two hours of mayhem combines feverish verbal confessions (other people's dreams are very boring), a commissioned rock score by David Byrne, an Italian film that looks like Life of Brian reshot by Pasolini, and a physical free-for-all involving exploding feather pillows and nude men pretending to be dogs. Collectively, the dancers sweat a great deal and make a lot of noise. If this is what it is to be male I'm so glad I'm not.