THE CRITICS: DANCE: Rice and easy does it

Cloud Gate Sadler's Wells, London Phoenix Dance Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
My first reaction wasn't at all what the director had in mind. But I'm sorry, for me the sound of rice rattling on to a hard surface generally accompanies the discovery that mice have been at the larder again and chewed a hole in a bag of American long grain. It's no good. You have to leave such worldly baggage at the door when you enter the world of Cloud Gate, a contemporary dance company from Taiwan which finds uses for rice that make cooking and eating it seem dreadfully prosaic.

The first image is also the most enduring. A man in Buddhist robes stands rapt in prayer while a stream of saffron-coloured rice descends on him, pelting his shoulders and shaven head to create a halo of dancing golden grains. The rice continues to pour for the next 80 minutes, during which time the monk remains perfectly still, serenely oblivious both to this steady bombardment and to the growing mound in front of him, a reminder of physical needs and appetites.

Songs of the Wanderers is described by its choreographer Lin Hwai-min as a journey to spiritual enlightenment, and the unperturbable monk clearly represents the state to which Lin and his dancers aspire. He is joined on stage by 14 "pilgrims", men and women who take their first, painfully slow steps along the way. In fact, their advance from the back of the stage is so slow as to be almost imperceptible, creating the impression of a sculpted frieze that changes with the organic weathering of stone. It is no surprise to learn that the entire company meditates before each performance. Their focus and control is remarkable.

Yet Lin is a showman as well as a seeker for truth, and his range of reference is cheerfully pick-and-mix. The music is Georgian folk song, and the movement borrows from the bunched fury of Martha Graham as well as t'ai chi and Chinese Opera. Lin's sculptural pilgrims are prone to surprising fits of agitation.

Men and women repeatedly rise up and fling themselves down in a parody of suffering or self-flagellate like medieval sinners, or scoop furious arcs of rice grains into the air in catherine-wheel sparks. Rice is everywhere - three tons of it - spread out like a desert landscape; heaped up into hillocks to be kicked up and writhed in, then finally released from on high in a great whumping deluge which urges the dancers to a frenzy of dervish whirling.

It is not clear by the end whether the pilgrims have attained their buddhahood. I suspect they have some way to go, since the closing image is of the solitary monk, still unflinching of his Chinese torture. His scalp is perhaps a little shinier, but he is otherwise unchanged and unchanging.

A quiet bonus, for those who linger in their seats after the house lights go up, is to watch a man with a rake fashion the entire stage-worth of rice into a mathematically precise whorl. This world is in too much of a hurry, seems to be the message. Tarry a while.

Phoenix Dance Company has played down its philosophy in recent years. The outfit was started in the 1980s by black sixth-form boys in Leeds, and it has gone through countless upmarket, downmarket permutations before hitting its recent stride.

Now it seems intent on expressing the spirit not just of what it is to be young and black in Britain, but committed and enthusiastic as well. Urban angst has given way to smart citizenship, and whatever the choreographic quality of the works on offer - which varies widely - this confidence beams from the dancers at every turn.

The new programme is dominated by PeregriNations, an ambitious piece of theatre-dance by American Dwight Roden. It aims to express the diverse histories of the Phoenix dancers in text and images, and some of this works well. Huge silver beach-balls are stylishly rolled, bounced and sat on; wire cubes are neatly spun on their axes.

On and between these props the dancers display their formidable athletic powers. Some of the men are Goliaths, yet their torsos are supple as ribbon; Phoenix's women are less elegant, but they're tough. Overall, you go home imp-ressed not by the stories they have to tell, but the means they possess for telling them.

Phoenix Dance's tour continues at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (01484 430528), 6 & 7 May.

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