Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu: It's an urban jungle out there...

Elephants, breakdancers, grannies? Jenny Gilbert on a French dance company with un différence
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The Independent Culture

Travel to the northernmost limit of the Paris Metro and you find the flip-side of tourist France – a suburb so unremittingly ugly and downtrodden you'd think some malevolent town planner had put a curse on it. For the French, Créteil is a byword for crime, high unemployment and race-provoked violence. It is also the home of Verlan, the hip, back-to-front lingo of the suburban Paris underclass, which turns regular words on their heads to create a dialect incomprehensible to most French people and, more pointedly, to the police. It is an unlikely place to find a slice of paradise.

Un Nioc de Paradis (turn "nioc" around and you get "coin", meaning corner) is a brilliant and boisterous dance show that arrives in the UK this week. It's a 45-minute distillation of a longer show entitled Paradis, a humorous blend of film and live performance in which ballet, breakdance, contemporary and African dance – juxtaposed at reckless speed alongside life-size moving images of zoo animals, small children and a granny – present a heady vision of global harmony. The show – which last year picked up an Olivier award – was co-devised by choreographer Jose Montalvo and dancer Dominique Hervieu, who base their company in Créteil by choice.

"Créteil suited our purposes," says Hervieu. "We've always been interested in the idea of mélange. First it was mixing amateurs and professionals, old and young. That's where the kids and grannies came in, and our shows still make reference to them. Now it's cultural diversity that interests us. And there's nowhere like Créteil for that." There's nowhere like Créteil for government funding, either. Impressed with Montalvo-Hervieu's résonance with the local community, the ministry for the arts has been generous. The rubbish-blown pavements of Créteil have also yielded some of the company's most spectacular dance talent. Now, if ever it has a vacancy, there's no need to go out scouting, or even advertise. Last time, 250 local wannabes turned up to audition for one role.

Running a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary dance company demands a certain tact. For a start, half the dancers have been professionally trained and half are self-taught. And then there's the religious mix. "Our hip-hop dancers are Arabic muslims and observe Ramadan, which can be quite hard on tour, though thankfully dancing isn't among the things they have to give up," says Hervieu. "In our latest show we have two Iranian musicians who are Muslim but not Arab Muslim, and they have quite a different way of living the same religion. On another project we had a Chinese Buddhist. That complexity is tricky, but it can be inspiring. The whole point of our shows is that we're not presenting a watered-down blend of cultural forms. We want to preserve each performer's identity, their special flavour, their expressive force."

With this in mind, the company is run on a very slack rein – despite the tight demands of giving 170 performances a year worldwide. "Take the hip-hop guys – it's essential for them to live their life, in the clubs and with their mates. That's where they learn new steps, get ideas, and where they perfect their skills," explains Hervieu, whose own delicate frame seems ill-equipped for staying alive in a concrete jungle, let alone laying down rules for hip-hop boys. "We have to respect that, so we don't ask them to make early morning rehearsals, or come in every day. Likewise, the African dancers go back to their villages and families in Africa every summer. It may be hard to fit around our schedules, but it's necessary." Remarkably, though the dancers aren't tied to contracts, dropouts are rare. The 10-year-old company still has many of its original members.

All of which could easily translate into a kind of self-conscious worthiness on stage. Un Nioc de Paradis has quite the opposite effect, thanks partly to the wild enthusiasm of the dancers, but also to the wacky imagination of choreographer Jose Montalvo, for whom laughter is clearly the key to everything. The sheer speed of delivery works on an audience like helium gas, enhanced by the performers' whoops and squeals. "Yes, it is a noisy show!" admits Hervieu, going on to explain that, while la vitesse is certainly used in the service of l'humour, it's there for other reasons too. "The combination of brevity and virtuosity means a dance delivers its personality in a very short time." She calls it "the aesthetic of the instant". Such concepts sound rather better in French, I guess.

Hervieu also uses some pretty big words to describe her own part in the show. She is one of the two contemporary dancers on stage, and the speed of articulation is frankly hard to believe. Her limbs are merely a blur. It's as if she's been speeded up on film (itself a neat irony, because the show is crowded with tricksy video images of dancers which have indeed been speeded up). It's a technique, she says, which she's been working at for many years and which is probably unique to her. The blinding speed relies on an extreme muscular relaxation (though the effect is the opposite of relaxed), a method of movement she devised in consultation with doctors "which doesn't involve the cortex; it's as if the body has discovered a dimension of instant response that bypasses the brain...". Whatever the physiological theory, the effect on stage is mind-blowing.

The balance of serious virtuosity and jokey fun is roughly 50/50 in this particular corner of paradise, where po-faced PC rules are temporarily waïved to allow one to laugh at and with the pneumatic Guadeloupian dancer who has – let's not be coy – the biggest bum you'll ever see on a dance stage. The video element includes a parade of cleverly scaled humans and animals that include elephant, camel, pony, and a yappy little terrier who sings in response to a jazzman's trumpet. You're never sure which, if any of them, might be real. Slits in two large screens mean that live performers can slip in and out between their video counterparts, clamber on their backs, or dodge the paws of giant beasts.

Again, there is a welter of sophisticated theory behind the giggle factor. According to its creators, this is "a baroque perception of life, playing with realities and unrealities". In my book, and in the opinion of my three children and 86-year-old mother-in-law who boggled at the show alongside me – the whole thing is just a gas.

Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 328488), Thur; QEH, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), Sat to 2 April; then touring

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