Birdbrain, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Traditional ballet gets the bird
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The Independent Culture

Most reworkings of Swan Lake involve retelling the story. Australian Dance Theatre's Birdbrain takes it to bits, adding labels and fluorescent dashes of highlighter pen. The choreographer, Garry Stewart, turns characters and ideas into slogans for his dancers' T-shirts. It's relentless, sometimes funny, and finally reductive.

Most reworkings of Swan Lake involve retelling the story. Australian Dance Theatre's Birdbrain takes it to bits, adding labels and fluorescent dashes of highlighter pen. The choreographer, Garry Stewart, turns characters and ideas into slogans for his dancers' T-shirts. It's relentless, sometimes funny, and finally reductive.

Two years ago, Birdbrain had sell-out performances on the South Bank. It's back as part of ADT's first UK tour, presented by the Dance Touring Partnership. Stewart, the company's director as well as its choreographer, has added gymnastics, breakdance and yoga to ADT's modern-dance training. It makes for an aggressive performance style, full of wrenching kicks and break-neck dives. The dancers are daring and committed. They change expression only for a smirk or a challenging stare. In Birdbrain, slogans do the talking.

It starts with a dancer playing a record. Her T-shirt is printed with the word "Overture", and she keeps dragging the needle to new patches of Tchaikovsky. The rest of the piece is danced to Luke Smiles's thumping beats and hums.

Other T-shirts label dancers as "Lover", "Hero", "Corps" or "Swans". Dancers turn up as scenery ("Woods", "Lake") or as comments on the action. A whole line of them are "Peasant Joy" and "More Pointless Revelling". There's no one Prince, no one Swan Queen, but there is a single Rothbart, the ballet's evil magician. The contortionist Craig Procter does extreme yoga behind a gauze screen - his legs round his own neck as he balances on his hands.

Stewart has more comments set around the stage. The steel walls of Gaelle Mellis's set are decorated with illustrations from an early ballet manual. Video clips show swans and stills of the ballet. There are also scrolling lists of words behind the dancers - a ballet word-association game, and a list of ballerinas.

But Stewart does make some of his comments in dance. Twenty minutes into the piece, a dancer comes on as "The Story Thus Far". His solo is a churning breakdance, with a frantic mime outline fitted in between spins and flailing arms.

As in the traditional ballet, Stewart brings on cygnets - four dancers with joined hands. They yank themselves out of their balletic grouping, arms and shoulders body-popping, even jumping into each other's arms - all with clasped hands. We also get the 32 fouettés, this ballet's famous technical show-off. As the screen counts up to 32, half a dozen dancers take turns at dancing them. But when Stewart quotes ballet, his dancers look rushed. They can do those fouettés and high extensions, but they can't give them authority.

Stewart's dance has some lively moments. The T-shirts are funny, and there's some affection in his sense of ballet's eccentricities. Over 75 minutes, though, all those slogans make for a glib evening. There are so many dismissive points here, too. Dancers come on in school uniform. Does this mean ballet is infantilising? Stewart is careful to add "patron" and "marketing" to his list of ballet words.

If a sneer creeps into Birdbrain, it's because Stewart's words have more weight than his dances. His choreography is all fast and hard and sullen, with little dynamic variety. I like the idea of the dancers as a lake, rolling and churning as the waters - but they've been rolling and churning all evening.

Michael Keegan-Dolan's Giselle starts with the basic plot of the 19th-century ballet, but moves it to a fictional Irish town, and adds speech, incest and line-dancing. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre's show gets by on the pace and confidence of its staging. Keegan-Dolan finds some bold images, especially in the second half, but the small-town weirdness wears thin.

This Giselle was a hit at the 2003 Dublin Theatre Festival, and it made Keegan-Dolan's name. In Britain, he has choreographed for ENO, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera, where he staged a Faust ballet using steps and images from the traditional Giselle.

He leaves them out of his own version. Again, Giselle is a village girl who loves the faithless Albrecht, dies of a broken heart and returns as a ghost. Hilarion, her village suitor, is now her incestuous half-brother; her Albrecht is a bisexual line-dancing teacher from Bratislava. Where the ballet heroine has a weak heart, this Giselle has asthma, wheezing painfully at painful moments.

Giselle is played by a woman, Daphne Strothmann. The rest of the cast is male. The point of Keegan-Dolan's staging, at least for the first half, is its quick, slick pace. For the ghost world of the second half, Keegan-Dolan abandons speech. He makes space for emotional depth, but it doesn't quite happen. But he does create a vivid final image. Dawn breaks and Giselle, returning to her grave, springs up into the air.

'Birdbrain' tours to 23 March ( www.adttour.co.uk)

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