Boobies, Barbican

This one's strictly for the birds
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The Independent Culture

The Inbal Pinto Dance Company, brought to the Barbican by Dance Umbrella and Bite, started its run on Hallowe'en. It was the right date for an evening of make-up and fright-wigs. Boobies constitutes the Israeli company's third visit to the Umbrella. As before, the evening is choreographed by Pinto and directed by Avshalom Pollak. It is named after a kind of bird found only in the Galapagos. Boobies dance and give each other gifts in their mating ritual; the oldest chick will push younger, weaker chicks out of the nest to die. The birds don't appear in the show, though there are echoes of gift-giving and plenty of shoving.

Most of the dancers have bright pink-tinted cheeks, like performers in Chinese opera. The women of the corps wear blue tufty wigs and tutu skirts; the men have clown pants and ruffs. Three women in cropped leotards, with scarves and kiss curls, look like 1920s bathing belles. A thickly padded man lurches around like Igor from a Frankenstein film.

Having dressed their cast from the circus and the movies, Pinto and Pollak do little more for them. These characters strut or push at each other, then wander off. The bathing belles take up jazz dance poses but never dance. The music, mostly traditional Chinese or Korean, is used as background.

There are longer mime scenes, some familiar physical movement jokes. A woman sways on, enormously tall with an orange wig and billowing skirts. She sinks to the ground, human-sized, as the corps de ballet climb out from her skirts. It is an old trick, and does not have much impact. Igor and this redhead Bride of Frankenstein keep returning to a mime conversation. They squabble, spit, snarl. They argue with their bad-tempered pet merman, a turquoise-haired man with a wrap-around skirt for a fishtail. The quarrels are not about anything in particular, and the mime does not make them any clearer.

The more specific they are, the better. The merman has one splendid seal-like exit, lying full-length and pushing himself along with hands like flippers. It is a pity that he later walks on, toddling in his fishtail.

Boobies settles for quaint surrealism, kookiness generally applied. Pollak and Pinto aim for a dark tone, dancers bullying one another, but there is no bite to the power games. The piece looks like a design sketchbook: ideas they had for a show; not the show itself.

Darshan Singh Bhuller's dance Planted Seeds has a sense of shock to it. Made in 1998, in response to reports of the war in Yugoslavia, it starts with Sarajevo's Romeo and Juliet, a Muslim girl and her Serb boyfriend murdered as they tried to escape the war. Bhuller went to Sarajevo for research and came back with questions about the wider conflict, about communities changed by war.

This revival is Bhuller's second programme as director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. It is much stronger than his first. Requiem, his piece on the last bill, had the same kind of political engagement. It was an overloaded dance, losing shape through too many ideas. The strength of Planted Seeds is its sharp focus.

Bhuller packs a lot into a simple production, a bare stage and Mark Parry's lighting. The company looks inspired by it. Its acting has a few rough edges but is always frank, unselfconscious. The dances are bold and eagerly athletic.

One claustrophobic number evokes the mass rapes of the Yugoslavian war. Women sit in near-darkness, a criss-cross patch of light suggesting imprisonment. They stare into space, knees drawn up to their chests, then dance. A group of men march one woman away.

Bhuller has the confidence to leave a lot out of this scene. It is bleakly matter-of-fact, resigned to its own horrors. The men are rough, but they don't swagger. The chosen woman, too used to this treatment, barely flinches when one man lays a hand on her neck.

The dance for the women left outside is as spare. The music is from Gorecki's third symphony, but the dancers do not yearn. They run frantically against the walls, but their faces are blank. At one point all four women sit up with a gasp, knees held wide. The pose suggests childbirth as well as immediate pain, the long-term consequences of a policy of rape.

Planted Seeds starts with life before the war. There are snapshot scenes of daily life, the lovers meeting at a party. Bhuller has a nice sense of detail: his Juliet studying her nails as Romeo approaches, the other guests dancing badly. The folk inflected group dances are cheerfully muscular. There is a nasty edge when Bob Smith, an older man, mimes gunfire but everybody giggles as they fall down and bounce up again.

Smith is the work's darkest character, and gives its most assured performance. He plays the violence neutrally; his manner does not change much between shooting a man and carrying bread from the market.

When he coaches a younger man in rape, the scene's force comes from Smith's steadiness, his role as a teacher. He encourages, he reassures his pupil, he is patient. It is not hard to see him as part of a community, even at such a moment.

Explicitly political dance is hard to bring off. It is too easy to simplify, to slide into melodrama. Planted Seeds is a measured response to shocking events. Even with Smith as a figure of evil, Bhuller's characters are not villains and victims. He keeps returning to everyday life, to violence as part of normality.

'Boobies' touring to 11 November. 'Planted Seeds' touring to 27 November