The Critics: Hop, skip and bump

dance; Legs on the Wall Riverside Studios Planted Seeds Queen Elizabeth Hall
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The Independent Culture
If you mess up, don't let on. Isn't that the advice every performer imbibes from the cradle? Just keep smiling and they'll believe it was meant to happen like that. We call it professionalism, but it's also a way of keeping the spectators at arm's length. Now a company from Down Under called Legs on the Wall has another idea. Why not throw a spotlight on fallibility? Show the mistakes. Make them on purpose, even. Crave indulgence, then gauge the glow of fellow human feeling.

At the start of Under the Influence, an eleventh-hour rehearsal appears to have run over. Three girls and two boys in gym kit are going through risk-laden tumbling routines: a girl leaps with splayed feet from one guy's upturned palms to another's; a body is hoist high in the air, balanced on the flat of a hand. "Does that feel okay?" comes a nervy voice. Then, with a touch of panic: "Arms together ... feet together!" Yikes, a surprise landing. They have us believe there was real danger there. Just see what they're prepared to risk for us! We warm to them, fear for them, even begin to love them. And now they've got us where they want us, the show can really begin.

It's an arch device, but so subtly wrought that by the time we've rumbled it, we're enjoying ourselves too much to care. The kind of physical theatre that involves slamming bodies into hard surfaces normally tends to the macho end of the scale. But what Legs on the Wall have devised is the kinetic equivalent of comedy revue, full of piquant observations of life and manners. In one sketch, a couple of Fifties newly-weds do a lovey- dovey routine based on the act of laying the table: spinning plates, twirling chairs, perfecting circus knife-throwing skills with cutlery. It's touching in its innocent enthusiasm, and hilarious. They replay the routine 20 years on - with Mrs bored rigid, but Mr still keener than Colman's - to droll effect.

The influence this show is under is clearly that of the opposite sex. We see it at work in a triangular tango; in a Freudian dream played out on a giant swinging bed, where a man's unconscious rejection of a partner results in supernatural flying effects; and in a kooky elimination dance at a singles' holiday camp. "Please leave the floor," drones the butch compere, "all women whose longest relationship has been with their cat". The most winning use of spoken text is a flawless monologue relating the story of Cinderella in increasingly congested spoonerisms ("Rindahella was ro sappy ..."). The movement known as New Circus has been going in Australia a good decade longer than here, forging many artistic liaisons along the way. If the surprising subtlety of Legs on the Wall is typical of this evolution, there may be even more interesting applications in store for the triple back-flip.

There was no laughter at the Queen Elizabeth Hall where Darshan Singh Bhuller (once a notable dancer of Richard Aliston's company, now out on his own making dance films) showed a piece influenced by his trip last year to Sarajevo. Planted Seeds came about after Bhuller met and talked to young Serbs, Croats and Muslims who gave harrowing accounts of atrocities of recent years, yet against the odds expressed a remarkable degree of hope. Bhuller's 100-minute dance-theatre piece - powered by emotive music from Gorecki to ethnic singing to Slavic rock - succeeds where years of news reportage largely failed. It persuades a complacent audience to think the unthinkable and engage with the insufferable.

The first half centres on the plight of women who endured systematic rape by the Serbs; the second half on the story of Sarajevo's "Romeo and Juliet", who were gunned down for their forbidden affair. It sounds grim, and indeed there are times when you want to scream and shout for the sheer intractability of the facts. Yet Bhuller's control of heightened dance nuance is so refined that what you feel is more than the sum of what you see. Violence is scarcely enacted as such. This isn't propaganda.

What Bhuller is doing - rare in my experience of dance - is to sculpt human histories into a newly accessible form. He also creates passages of pure, uplifting buzz as ethnic influences come together and party. This is the second brief showing of an extraordinary work. I want to know when's the next.

Legs on the Wall: Riverside Studios, W6 (0181 237 1111), to Sat.