Aurélia's Oratorio, Oxford Playhouse

And then, right, he only goes and drives a train through her tummy...
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The Independent Culture

Being born into a performing dynasty can be more of a curse than a blessing, but Aurélia Thierrée - daughter of stage illusionist Victoria Chaplin and granddaughter of Charlie - seems happy to sign up to the family aesthetic. She grew up touring the world with her parents' two-person Cirque Imaginaire. Now in Aurélia's Oratorio she takes centre-stage, assisted by dancer Timothy Harling and directed by her mother.

As in earlier shows from the Chaplin/Thierrée stable, elaborate home-made props and human dexterity combine with an engagingly dippy frame of mind that sees the ticklish potential in everyday objects. A bunch of flowers finds itself arranged in a vase, stalks up. Washing is hung out on a balcony to be watered from a can. A kite flies the girl who holds the string. There is no narrative link, just a flow of images - dozens, maybe more than a hundred. They follow so swiftly that you barely dare blink, still less take time to consider the practicalities.

In what must be a stage-manager's nightmare, props appear as if from nowhere and get whisked away in seconds: two-dozen alarm clocks that contrive to play a tune, an entire wardrobe of velvet frocks with a life of their own. Wide-eyed and insouciant, Thierrée drifts about the gothic, swag-curtained stage like a madwoman in an attic, upsetting the regular nature of things in a spirit of pure mischief.

The pace is varied by even wackier set pieces. In one, an on-stage cinema screen evolves from yards of scrolling lace curtain, behind which a lace-dressed Thierrée is attacked by a lace-outlined puppet monster that apparently eats her lace leg by unravelling a thread gripped between its teeth. She promptly whips out a pair of knitting needles and reconstitutes the leg.

Another set piece involving an almost absurd degree of handicraft has Thierrée's head filling the tiny aperture of a puppet booth while an audience of some 20 papier-mache dwarfs sit and applaud her. My guess was that the models' movements were controlled by Thierrée using a foot-pump: whatever, the mechanics are mysterious and the effect delicious.

In a swift 70 minutes there are few longueurs, and these tend to coincide with an over-reliance on piped music. A complicated tango in which Thierrée and her partner take turns in wearing the same jacket feels too long, but perhaps only because Harling has so exhausted the jacket repertory earlier, including a skit in which an overcoat appears to be murdering him.

The sweetness of Aurélia's Oratorio is constantly tempered by something more sinister, and it's on this creepier note that Chaplin chooses to end, as Thierrée apparently creates a hole in her own stomach to provide a tunnel for a model train to run through; day turns to dark, and the entire proscenium caves in.

The South Bank offered almost as arresting a spectacle in its one-night glimpse of a work by Tero Saarinen - a Finnish choreographer based in France. What had drawn me was the promise of hearing the Boston Camerata, an eight-voice group performing 250-year-old a cappella Shaker songs, some of them previously unheard outside villages in New England.

And yes, the music was memorable, the voices as keen and clean as a Shaker bread knife. But Saarinen's dance is the discovery. Like the early modernist choreographer Doris Humphrey, Saarinen is intrigued by Shakerism, although Borrowed Light, set to 21 songs with such titles as "Mother Ann's Comforting Promise", is less about the sect than about community fervour in general. This is by no means historical dance, despite its sexual segregation and sense of suppressed desire spilling into hysteria. Scenes from Arthur Miller's The Crucible come to mind, and the film Babette's Feast.

Mikki Kunttu's meeting-room set elevates the singers on a wide black ledge with the eight dancers below, though sometimes they join in a circle or link arms in a human chain. Erika Turunen's swishing black costumes suggest denial of the flesh, though tellingly bits keep peeping through. And Saarinen's eccentric, staggering steps - stamped and slid through in flat black boots - could, in another context, look like the result of binge drinking. Here the dance becomes a strange, violent and complex conduit for the struggle of will over flesh. I've not seen, or experienced, anything like it.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'Aurélia's Oratorio': Oxford Playhouse (018656 305305), 22-24 April; touring

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