The Critics: Dance: To baldly go nowhere

Stephen Petronio QEH, SE1 Mark Baldwin QEH, SE1 Mr Worldly Wise Sadler's Wells, EC1
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The Independent Culture
There is a dilemma that regularly faces choreographers: tell the audience what it's about, or let them make of it what they will? Plan A risks a drubbing in "Pseud's Corner", Plan B, incomprehension and turn- off. New York dancemaker Stephen Petronio, making his nth visit to Dance Umbrella but his first with a full-length work, attempts an AB compromise.

Not Garden - a play on Knot Garden? or Definitely Not the Garden of Eden? I am no wiser - begins by bombarding us with proper nouns projected on to a vast gauze screen. Adolf Hitler. Saddam Hussein. Pinochet. Pol Pot ... ah, a roll-call of villains. But then, after many minutes of this, Andrea Dworkin? Bill Gates? The Pope?!? Come now. Someone told me privately that Petronio's inspiration was Dante's Inferno. Which begins to make sense. This certainly matched my idea of hell.

But what of the dancing? What of the slaphead speed-merchant himself? Well, not a lot. The first we see of Petronio is looking like the Mekon, his shiny pink head poking out of floppy beige pyjamas (designed by Ghost). He swoops bonelessly about, the drape of his clothes seeming to follow some time later, his amoeboid hands occasionally clasped as in prayer.

The music (which I don't think was meant to be funny) is a strangulated tenor singing Gounod's "Ave Maria", apparently from the bottom of a well. But after five minutes of this - to the dismay of his fans - he vanishes until the work's closing seconds, when he reappears in a black latex diving suit and strikes an ominous 45-degree balance as if on the edge of some ghastly millennial precipice.

The bulk of the dancing is left to his eight company members, who are, as we have grudgingly come to expect from New York companies, fantastically well-drilled and supple. Petronio's command of pattern and grouping is superb: he finds a multitude of ways to launch bodies into the fray, play with them a while like a cat with a tangle of knitting, then send them soaring off into the wings once more. Every phrase is launched at speed with rigid, propeller-like arms, yet the impression is one of smooth buoyancy. And though given no respite for nearly an hour, these dancers never seem to tire. Trouble is, we do. For all the skill and energy, the dynamic is one-paced. Fine for 20 minutes. Deadly for an hour.

Mark Baldwin, also appearing under the Dance Umbrella last week, chose to confine his ideas to four smaller-scale pieces, each set to a 20th- century piano work played live on stage, though not all of these repaid his efforts. The opener, Darkness Visible, was an unremittingly lugubrious little number danced by three women. The score, by Thomas Ades, was made tolerable only by the striking pin-shaft lighting by Stephen Munn, which seemed to etch on to the otherwise black QEH stage the impression of a glass prism.

It's an open secret that no small number of ballet-trained male dancers envy the girls their pointe-shoes. But one would have thought by now the shock-value of seeing boys balancing on two square inches of resin and wadding would have gone the way of all one-shot sight gags. In Baldwin's M-Piece however, Bart De Block, in pink vest and green tights, camps it up for all he's worth, although the steps he's dancing would be unremarkable as a competition test-piece for ballerinas. Block is a fine dancer and he can do it, yes, but so what? Unaccountably his performance, accompanied in its latter part by stertorian panting (see, it is tough being a girl), drew whoops of applause from the audience's large gay sector.

Baldwin shows off Block's pointe technique to more useful effect in the final piece of the programme, his setting of Song of the Nightingale (in Stravinsky's own piano reduction, not a patch on the orchestral original). Sadly Baldwin omitted to tell the audience that it was based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, and neither Rifat Ozbek's costumes nor Baldwin's expressive, heart-on-sleeve choreography gave much guidance as to the plot. Leaving us to puzzle over such basic details as which of the four dancers was meant to be the nightingale rather defeated the object of the exercise.

Some have expressed bafflement over Twyla Tharp's Mr Worldly Wise, currently being revived by the Royal Ballet. (The immediate crisis over dancers' contracts has been settled, I hear, so the Sadler's Wells season can and will go on). From the absurdly privileged position of seeing Mr W for the third time, however, I find it admirably clear. It's wacky all right, with its dancing carrot and squishy little aubergine and chorus of nuns in suspenders. But even the wildest of these hallucinations has a biographical basis a propos Rossini, the work's hero. And Tharp finds a perfect visual equivalent to his music's essential nature, madcap jokes bursting the bounds of classical style, piety constantly undermined by waywardness. As Rossini, Irek Mukhamedov gives the louche performance of his life.

'Mr Worldly Wise': Sadler's Wells (0171 863 8000) 6 & 7 November.

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