Purcell Room, London

Dance review: Circle of Eleven - Hang on to your hats – if you can

Take one room, spin it through 90 degrees and let a gravity-defying Frenchman loose in it. Then prepare to be amazed

Aman is in a box. But this isn't one of those air-drawn, measured-in-handspans boxes that dog the popular perception of mime – the London International Mime Festival was shot of those long ago. This is a box-shaped room with proper walls, and imaginary only by association.

Which is to say that, next to the box-shaped room, on the platform of the Southbank's Purcell Room, is a screen projecting real-time video of the box-shaped room turned through 90 degrees. (If this reads like a spatial reasoning test, then yes, in a way it is.)

Thus when lanky Frenchman William Bonnet lies on the floor in the room on the right, in the room on the left he appears to be leaning against the wall. And when he does a benchpress with his feet pushed against the real wall on the right, his doppelgänger appears to be standing up checking for damp on the wall on the left. So little strain is apparent in the increasingly outlandish poses Bonnet adopts that the 90-degree screen version of them looks not just plausible, but comically casual.

Circle of Eleven is the typically discombobulating name of this company of one, directed by the French-Canadian Daniel Brière using an original idea from the German gymnast Tobias Wegner. Like many of the Mime Festival's finds, it's a simple idea with sophisticated effects. For if the concept sounds calculating, the character you see before you is anything but, cheerfully applying himself to survival in a world of topsy-turvy gravitational laws.

In his empty digs, soon tiring of trying to stop his tie dangling at the wrong angle (but only wrong in one version), he finds chalk and draws himself a cosy sitting room, with furniture, a dozing cat, and table set for two, all sketched at a 90-degree angle, so that when he settles on the chair horizontally, it looks upright in the rotated image. A radio cues some fine physical comedy as Bonnet responds to the sounds that emerge, a piano waltz prompting a grand jeté from which he doesn't descend, Frank Sinatra singing "I've Got the World on a String" bringing a blast of stylish hoofing.

So far, so much fun. But like so many simple ideas, this one runs its course too soon. Once the hapless bachelor has upset the goldfish bowl and flooded the room, narrative goes out of the window and the ensuing Finding Nemo-style underwater graphic fantasy loses all dramatic tension, even while accompanied by the stirring climax of Swan Lake. When the focus returns to the man in his once-more empty room, the projection now delayed so that he appears haunted by his shadow, we no longer give a fig what happens to him. The golden thread of human empathy has snapped.

The lauded Russian outfit Derevo (Purcell Room, London) doesn't need that kind of audience connection. Drawing on the company's anarchic mix of dance, Dada and clowning, Harlekin gives a platform to a stock figure to be kept at arm's length. Harlequin (the forerunner of Mr Punch), has always been a trickster and a braggart prone to violence, so when the lumbering puppetmeister at the start of this show-within-a-show gets his finger bitten by a 12-inch Harlequin string puppet, it's par for the course.

The ensuing action focuses on Harlequin as embodied by the mesmerising Anton Adassinsky, whose jerky, jittery movements never let you forget his puppet origins, even while his wordless expressive artistry shows him as Everyman with a psychotic bent. Elena Yarovaya, as the woman who, literally, steals her lover's heart in a gruesome scene involving saws, spouts of ketchup and a red pepper – is just as arresting. The single lyrical, innocent sequence in the show, as Harlequin tries to woo Pieretta from a bedroom window, is atypically sweet.

The rulebook torn up long ago, the work lurches in tone and pace, introducing new characters at random. Suddenly Yarovaya is no longer the love-object Pieretta, but an organ-grinder's monkey, a weird, servile, scratchy little creature, potential material for bad dreams. As for Harlequin, sometimes he just sits, beautifully lit, for our contemplation. Behold a sinner and survivor, Derevo seems to be saying. For all its enervating slowness, this is theatre that seeps under your skin.

'Circle of Eleven', Purcell Room (0844 875 0073) to Tue. The London International Mime Festival continues at various venues until 27 Jan (www.mimelondon.com)

Critic's Choice

As the Royal Opera rehearses a new production of Eugene Onegin next month, the Royal Ballet revives John Cranko's three-act dance drama Onegin, likewise based on Pushkin's narrative poem. It's a riveting story of obsession, cruelty, sexual power and comeuppance, offering four fine leading roles and music by Tchaikov- sky. Cranko's 1969 choreography is powerfully expressionistic, the storytelling clear. In short: there's no better introduction to ballet. At the Royal Opera House till 8 Feb.

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