Spotlight: contemporary dance

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The Independent Culture

At the gala for Dance Umbrella's 25th anniversary, the choreographer Richard Alston introduced Val Bourne, who has directed the Contemporary Dance Festival from the beginning. She chooses artists, he said, "because she loves them".

The breadth of Bourne's enthusiasm is astonishing: all shades of dance, experimental drama, mime.... Perhaps only Bourne manages to love all of it, but that inclusiveness is essential to Umbrella's success, its vital importance to dance in Britain. Indeed, her month-long festival offered a snapshot of the state of contemporary dance.

This silver anniversary year had a retrospective feel: old friends and past glories. They weren't all in good shape. Trisha Brown's Set and Reset has wonderful designs and strange, lightweight dances, but her new pieces fell very flat.

For Kammer/Kammer, William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt hung video screens around Sadler's Wells auditorium. This is more of a play than a ballet, its speaking characters appearing on screen to underline the many ironies of their hopeless love affairs. The technology was glossy, but there's no depth of feeling to Forsythe's love stories.

Dance Umbrella featured international performers from its first year, but it was originally planned as a British showcase. Some of this year's strongest performances came from that first wave of British dance, the contemporary dance boom of the late Seventies and Eighties.

Michael Clark is the most famous of those artists, still celebrated for those Eighties performances. Oh My Goddess is his best work in a long time. His own dancing no longer dominates: still elegant, he's lost his starry radiance. But he has passed his care for line, clarity and footwork on to his dancers. These new works are beautifully strict exercises, making serious demands on their performers. The one thing they don't have is Clark's own early fluidity, his way of turning steps into glowing dance. There's an odd feeling that Clark, with his wild reputation, has become a marvellous teacher. Sometimes you want his pupils to let go and enjoy themselves, but they're always impressive.

Like Clark, Russell Maliphant trained at the Royal Ballet School in the Seventies. Both turned to modern dance, but their early schooling shows through: that attention to line again. Maliphant's new quintet, commissioned by Umbrella, is the best work I've seen from him. His usual intricate partnering is more relaxed: it no longer looks like an exercise he's set himself. His dancers are graceful and composed. These weren't barnstorming dances, but the Festival Hall was roused to cheers.

This generation is bound up with Umbrella's history; its early support for British artists. Who can be seen as the next generation of dancers, in Britain and abroad? Critics are always ready to notice the golden ages they missed - I started watching Dance Umbrella in the Nineties - but there really were more new choreographers around 20 years ago. The great hope, Akram Khan, appeared only on screen. His film If not why not showed him at his most irritating, cutting dance to pieces in tricksy camerawork.

The state of American contemporary dance is even more worrying. Modern dance is, after all, an American tradition. It's always been full of rebellions and new directions - Merce Cunningham turning away from Martha Graham, people like Trisha Brown setting out to reinvent dance in the Sixties. Is the supply drying up? The youngest of the big names - Mark Morris and Bill T Jones both danced in the opening gala - are now in their forties, and the rising generation looks very thin on the ground. Perhaps it always does: in the Eighties, Morris was seized on as a lone genius in the wilderness. But we're still waiting for the next genius.

The glory of this contemporary festival was its oldest choreographer. At 84, in his company's 50th year, Merce Cunningham is still making and remaking beautiful, radical dances. His sold-out Anniversary Events filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Audiences wandered between three stages, each overflowing with dance as groundbreaking as anything else in the building.