Bill T Jones, Sadler's Wells, London

Bill's unhappy anniversay
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The Independent Culture

The Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and for this programme, Jones is concentrating on dance. It's a dreary evening. Jones himself dances one solo, set to a movement from a Beethoven string quartet. At 52, he's a striking man, in athletic shape, but he isn't an eloquent dancer. His line is awkward, his footwork badly blurred. He chases after the steps he made for himself, with tense shoulders and unstretched feet. His dancers have picked up too many of the same qualities.

The Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and for this programme, Jones is concentrating on dance. It's a dreary evening. Jones himself dances one solo, set to a movement from a Beethoven string quartet. At 52, he's a striking man, in athletic shape, but he isn't an eloquent dancer. His line is awkward, his footwork badly blurred. He chases after the steps he made for himself, with tense shoulders and unstretched feet. His dancers have picked up too many of the same qualities.

This anniversary season by the American company brings back early works, including several by the late Zane. The Gift/No God Logic adds four dancers and some moody lighting to clips from Verdi's La Forza del Destino. The dancers shuffle round in a line, bend into poses, return to the shuffling line. This is choreography with a tin ear. Zane tries to follow Verdi's basic phrases, repeatedly lifting one woman up into the light on a top note. But he overlooks dramatic shifts in the music. Where Verdi repeats a phrase with a new emphasis, Zane does a straight repeat, and there's no sense of irony or tension in the missing difference.

Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger, made last year, hitches a ride on a short story by Flannery O'Connor. Rachel Lee Harris and Ryan Hilliard take it in turns to read O'Connor's account of a grandfather and child on a day trip to Atlanta. The dancers trail after the story, acting out scenes. That's really it: this staging adds nothing but stagnation. A few pages of text take 45 minutes on stage; it's as if every plot point were underlined in red ink.

After trudging through Reading..., we go straight into Mercy 10x8 on a Circle. The music is a set of Beethoven variations, in a taped recording by Glenn Gould. Squares of red paper fall to the stage, and the dancers circle around them, running or stopping in poses. These are variations without variation: the choreography is too weakly structured to give any sense of development.

In Foi, danced by the Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B, half the characters are dead and they're all left in limbo. They never get out, but the choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is very ready to save or damn them. The piece starts in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Dancers lie collapsed among broken furniture, in a room with blasted concrete walls. War, earthquake, terrorist attack? Other dancers, dressed in beige, wander like ghosts among the survivors.

As the survivors pick themselves up, it's clear that Cherkaoui has little sympathy for most of them. They're self-absorbed Westerners; they witter on about their past lives, but there's no tenderness in the memories. One woman holds out pictures of a young man. He is her son: have the others seen him? They brush her off, uninterested. We know he's dead: he's one of the beige ghosts.

Cherkaoui's dancers don't hold back: they're ready to strip off, to fling themselves against walls, to be caught with their knickers round their ankles. It's an obviously raw performance, but do we ever feel close to these characters?

Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons is a gentle, sentimental ballet, but its pretty love story moves lightly into powerful emotions. Birmingham Royal Ballet is celebrating Ashton's centenary this summer, and it looks at ease in this revival.

The light 19th-century score is by André Messager, and the ballet is full of light 19th-century conventions. The hero is a bohemian painter in a garret. His girlfriend, like so many ballet heroines, has eight friends, all in Degas ballet skirts. It even has real pigeons.

In the midst of all this fluffy charm, Ashton's young couple are very human. Her dances have pigeon motifs, with bobbing head and waggling elbows. They're comic, but these fluttering steps look desperately vulnerable as they start to quarrel.

When some stage Gypsies turn up, all gold earrings and sexy shoulder shakes, they both welcome the diversion. Then he starts to flirt with one of the Gypsies, and leaves in pursuit of them. The Gypsy camp is an excuse for bright, jingling dances, all shimmying torsos, stamped heels and slapped floors. The painter is mocked and beaten, thrown out to limp back to his girlfriend. Their last duet returns to those pigeon motifs, with a heartbroken lyricism.

Bill T Jones is touring ( www.worldwidedanceuk.com)

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