Camp, Robin Howard Theatre, The Place, London

The most fun you can have pitching a tent
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The Independent Culture

British contemporary dance doesn't often enjoy the luxury of a continuous run in one theatre. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake had long runs, but not before it had proved its appeal on many shorter ones. It's surprising, then, to find The Place backing what can only be a hunch about an up-coming talent.

British contemporary dance doesn't often enjoy the luxury of a continuous run in one theatre. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake had long runs, but not before it had proved its appeal on many shorter ones. It's surprising, then, to find The Place backing what can only be a hunch about an up-coming talent.

As a member of Bourne's company (and a memorable Knickerbocker in Nutcracker) Arthur Pita has made his name as a dancer. Until now his choreographic credentials have rested on a bit of work in opera and one lightweight double-bill. Camp is his first crack at full-evening dance theatre, and for the first 10 minutes the piece comfortably resembles the kind of works Bourne cut his teeth on - parodic and mildly subversive, as the nudge in the title suggests.

But you don't set dance to Vivaldi's Four Seasons and hope to get away with mocking those great universal themes of growth, decay and renewal. And Camp does indeed turn out to have some serious bite, though sterner editing is needed.

It starts out as the simple story of five friends going camping, using speech as well as dance, and as we watch them erect yellow pop-up tents they reveal their personalities. Navel-gazer Rachel Lopez de la Nieta wants to get in touch with her inner earth mother. Robin Dingemans - a dead ringer for Shaggy from Scoobydoo - is a keen boy scout, and launches an energetic lecture-demonstration on knots - reef, slip and sheepshank. By contrast, Tiziana Fracchiolla has changed into three unsuitable outfits before you can say "flowered washbag".

Luiz Marchetti's monochrome projections stylishly suggest the natural world in step with Vivaldi's movements: giant bud silhouettes followed by waving fronds, swirling fogs and encroaching frost patterns resembling great blooms of barb wire. The recorded performance is Nigel Kennedy's, wilfully romantic and lush, interspersed with sounds of birdsong, wind and rain.

The human element is less predictable, and soon the three men are competing athletically for the eye of Fracchiolla, and Lopez has retreated under a burka, emerging only to fantasise about unzipping Dingemans' tent and engaging him in a tender and most beautifully evolving duet. It's in these quieter passages that you log Pita's subtle choreographic gift.

Fracchiolla, having seduced hunky Michael Pomero in a sultry duet, suddenly transforms her tent into a wedding crinoline and starts intoning Italian marriage vows as Pomero squirms bodily into her skirts. (These are singular vows though: something about promising to grate my Parmesan and never comparing me with your mother.) With summer, the campers' bonfire becomes the site of a pagan rite, the dancers shedding their clothes and shaking their booty in wild stamping line dances. From this point Camp is no longer linear, or narrative, or anything easy or neat. But as it becomes more erratic, it also gets darker and more interesting. Faced with the problem of what to do with naked bodies on an exitless stage, Pita ingeniously turns the men into autumn trees, each one gently releasing dead leaves from raised clenched fists.

Come winter, what happens is unclear. Dingemans, having run amok to Vivaldi's stag-rutting theme with bin-liner antlers on his head, comes to some kind of sticky end, tripped up by an amorous rival (and using a sheepshank knot, how else?). Naked trees are felled. One tent becomes a body bag, another an amniotic sac. There's a laughably crass musical ending. The faults of clarity can be fixed. What's exciting about Camp is its highly original response to an over-familiar score - just what everyone was saying about Matthew Bourne some dozen years ago.

'Camp': Robin Howard Theatre, The Place, London WC1 (020 7387 0031), to 14 May

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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