Babelle Heureuse, Barbican Theatre, London<br/>Mixtures, Westminster Abbey, London

Helicoptering breakdancers and other animals
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The Independent Culture

It's the giant rabbit that tells you this isn't going to be an evening of navel-gazing. A screen image of the sort of creature French peasants fatten up for stew sits, placidly nibbling, in what turns out to be the only moment of inaction for the next extraordinary 70 minutes.

It's the giant rabbit that tells you this isn't going to be an evening of navel-gazing. A screen image of the sort of creature French peasants fatten up for stew sits, placidly nibbling, in what turns out to be the only moment of inaction for the next extraordinary 70 minutes.

Those familiar with the work of Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu, star of the French government's racial harmony programme in the troubled Paris suburb of Creteil, will already have set up a mental checklist of director Jose Montalvo's idées fixes. Video animals, grandmothers and madcap chases occur in all four of the shows we've seen, as well as live virtuosity of a variety rarely seen cheek-by-jowl. A breakdancer helicopters in circles, only his forearms touching the ground. A ballerina cuts zigzags from the air like a pair of crimping shears. Their speed seems so unfeasible that the only response is to laugh.

Yet Babelle Heureuse, notwithstanding its cartoon jokes and rib-tickling video tricks, is not just a kids' show. Nul points to the Barbican for marketing it as such in a week when the entire population of seven- and 11-year-olds were taking their SATs. Yet the miserable turnout did nothing to dampen the impact of this latest instalment in Montalvo's lifetime project. Cultural diversity is what it celebrates, and a serious seam of hope and joy runs through it. The Babel of the title is the polyglot community the company represents. Among the cast of 21 are two Iranian musicians, Algerian hip-hoppers, a classical soprano, a straight white actor and various denominations of West African including a sensuously pneumatic Guadeloupienne whose buttocks have a life of their own.

You feel you ought to be able to pin down the spirit that bubbles up between the nuggets of virtuosity in Montalvo's shows. But he deliberately dodges ideological analysis by taking a child's perspective. A couple of upturned acrobats exchange a quick chaste kiss. A ritual hip-hop greeting turns silly as the pair demand, "Ça va? Ça va?" while bouncing on their spines. Yet all the while you're laughing, you know there's something else going on.

The joyous diversity of dance cultures – stressing differences rather than smudging them together – is mirrored in the music. A woman from the Côte d'Ivoire does her wild tribal stomp to Vivaldi. The Iranians croon a haunting Persian ballad as a classical dancer flicks through a circuit of jetés. Most extraordinary of all, a flawless rendering of the Countess's aria from The Marriage of Figaro is met by two Africans improvising a chorus.

In these days of too-easy cultural assumptions and faulty understanding, it isn't hard to see the serious purpose here. No one pretends a dance show can have answers. But in its respect and celebration of difference, and in presenting non-Western cultures on a truly equal footing with our own, Babelle Heureuse goes far beyond a brief to entertain.

Introducing disciplines that wouldn't otherwise get to meet is also the aim of a series of events at Westminster Abbey. Music written for organ is generally heard in isolation. But last Tuesday, Mixture featured works chosen by the organist Dame Gillian Weir, three of them accompanied by specially commissioned dance. I arrived, a little late, to find some of the audience sitting in the nave of the abbey where their view was entirely obscured. I soon understood why. It was a stupendous organ recital given in a stupendous setting – and a revelation to me to hear what rumbustious, verging-on-profane great music has been written for the instrument. But it gained nothing by having Lilliputian dancers scuttling about the margins of it, nothing at all.

The piece by Sara Matthews (and danced, as were the other works, by members of English National Ballet) got closest to having a point, if only by making a stab at the kind of big, bold gestures that might register (if only faintly) against a million tons of stone and a mile of organ pipe. How much better to have used the entire edifice of the Abbey in a grand son-et-lumière design – a living installation such as that which opened the new British Library some years ago. Now that would be something. Another time, perhaps.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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