Dark soul dancers do the slow-go

Ariadone | Linbury Studio, London Béjart Ballet Lausanne | Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture

You need a certain kind of metabolism to enjoy watching butoh. It's no good fidgeting because the performers haven't moved for three-and-a-half minutes. Have they overdone the beta-blockers? Are they even alive? No, wait. One of them seems to be moving a foot. Another is starting to turn her head. Truly, men grow beards in the time it takes for these women to stir their stumps.

You need a certain kind of metabolism to enjoy watching butoh. It's no good fidgeting because the performers haven't moved for three-and-a-half minutes. Have they overdone the beta-blockers? Are they even alive? No, wait. One of them seems to be moving a foot. Another is starting to turn her head. Truly, men grow beards in the time it takes for these women to stir their stumps.

The Japanese art of butoh - originally called ankoku butoh which means "dark soul dance" - was developed in the 1950s as a conscious hybrid of forms: the intense, often grotesque language of Western expressionism married to the stillness of traditional Japanese theatre. The result is a kind of body sculpture in which movement is used not to tell stories, but to distil states of being.

Ariadone, based in Paris, is butoh's first exclusively female company, and this gives their work a specific slant. Skin powdered alabaster-white, eyes rimmed in red and mouths alarming black holes, the individuality of the six dancers blurs into one frightening female archetype. And though the women never touch, an erotic charge hovers over every action. When they roll on their backs spreading their thighs, they seem at once to be in the throes of lovemaking, and parturition, and dying. Audible whimpers and gasps could equally signify ecstasy, fear or expiry.

I once read that butoh began as a direct response to the emotional legacy of Hiroshima, and the more effective sections of this show support that. Fine control of the facial muscles allows the performers to run the gamut of horror, expectancy, joy and pain in the space of a single second - a brilliant paradox of time and motion, given the slowness of their larger movements, and an effect that is powerfully disturbing.

At other times the arrangement of bodies puts one in mind of inanimate nature: a mass of swaying torsos like reeds in a river; a vision of bare upturned bottoms as smooth white pebbles. All this is very effective. But Ariadone's director Carlotta Ikeda seems to think butoh needs livening up a bit, with dismaying results. Three dolls-house inmates with frilly knickers round their ankles totter about and squeak. A trio of grungy ballerinas attempt comically contorted pirouettes. And a naked woman trussed in cellophane like an Interflora delivery struggles with her fate (one wasn't sure if this was meant to be funny or desperate). Apocalypse is surely what butoh was made for, not laughs.

Maurice Béjart makes light work of a dark subject in his company's second programme at Sadler's Wells: a double-tribute to the late singer Freddie Mercury and the late dancer Jorge Donn, both of whose lives were cut short by Aids. Béjart, being ballet's medallion man, is a sucker for Queen's melted-ice-cream vocal style, and the band's greatest hits form the backbone of this 90-minute ballet, spliced inexplicably with bleeding chunks of Mozart. Béjart says he likes to think of the composer accompanying the fey-voiced Mercury in Heaven - an image so sickening let's just let it pass.

He also uses a long video clip of Donn, filmed when still at the peak of his powers, rehearsing a 1971 Béjart work called Nijinski - clown de Dieu in which Donn, in a tearful and hysterical state, impersonates the great dancer in circus-makeup and wig, looking confusingly like Freddie Mercury only with better teeth.

One of the practical snags of this show is the difficulty for a British audience (who've never heard of Donn) of identifying the main characters. The tall, blond, pretty guy you guess has to be Mercury because he changes his costume so often, from leather all-in-one with fishnet-insets, to fishnet all-in-one with cut-out chest. Indeed Gianni Versace's designs vie with the hard-to-sort-out dancers as star of the show.

The tone is relentlessly upbeat: a male orgy is just a lot of fun, ditto Mercury's excessive tastes and habits. Even two bodies on hospital trolleys end up making love to each other. But for all these irritations, Béjart can't be rejected out of hand as a trashy glamour merchant. His eye for the pure theatrical moment can still take you by the throat. Viz the show's opening and closing device, with 34 dancers resurrected from under 34 bedsheets: a stunning stroke of theatre - simple and strong.

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