Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sadler's Wells

Click to follow

After their ropey Balanchine evening, Dance Theatre of Harlem look at home in the last of their three programmes. Dougla, Return and Firebird are all ballets made for Dance Theatre. The dancing is upbeat and confident, though the company has a tendency to strain. They blast through these steps, whacking them down.

After their ropey Balanchine evening, Dance Theatre of Harlem look at home in the last of their three programmes. Dougla, Return and Firebird are all ballets made for Dance Theatre. The dancing is upbeat and confident, though the company has a tendency to strain. They blast through these steps, whacking them down.

Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, made in 1974, celebrates the mixed-race people of Trinidad, part Indian, part African. It's a roots ballet: 30 years on, it's visibly part of the 1970s American rediscovery of African cultures. The senior women, parading grandly in their robes, could have come straight from the covers of Aretha Franklin or Miles Davis records.

It's fantasy anthropology, with Indian hip wiggles and extravagant costumes. The corps de ballet stomp on to the drumming soundtrack. They're very well drilled: heads tilt, fingers point, all at exactly the same angle. Xzavier Cave and Taurean Green are flexible and strong in the showy acrobat roles, but they don't make the extremities interesting.

Robert Garland's Return, a soul ballet set to recordings by Franklin and James Brown, starts with turned-in jazz legs and thrusting hips, and slides into club dancing. Many pop ballets leave dancers trying too hard to be groovy, but Garland's stabbing pointe work mixes easily with strutting soul steps. It's a slight ballet, but it shows off its dancers. Dionne Figgins, the first ballerina, needs more warmth and sass, but she's technically strong. There are plenty of solo spots, and some of these corps dancers pounce on them: Jarina Carvalho whisks through her turns with brilliant attack.

John Taras's Firebird transfers the ballet to a Caribbean island. Geoffrey Holder's designs set the action deep in a turquoise jungle, with trailing flowers and red electric fireflies. Taras uses Stravinsky's suite from the ballet, and the story of the Fokine original has been simplified. A young man (Duncan Cooper) catches a Firebird (Paunika Jones), and frees her when she promises to help him. Taras also pushes the ballet towards classicism. At the wicked magician's court, the attendants turn somersaults, but have grands jêtés and pointe work, too. The dancers throw themselves into those steps, but they're less happy with the lyricism. It's a vigorous, emphatic performance.

At the start of La Veillée des Abysses, James Thiérrée gallops in on two stepladders, gardening forks and a scythe wedged between the steps. The tilting legs of the ladders kick at the ground; the forks paw the air like forelegs; the scythe, fixed upright, turns to look curiously around. It's a mechanical wonder, a potting-shed giraffe.

La Veillée doesn't live up to this enchanting start. Thiérrée's last show, The Junebug Symphony, was loved for its poetry as well as its astonishing circus skills. Those qualities are here, too, but the illusions are fitful and too many episodes drag. But Thiérrée's stage sense is remarkable. Even dull sketches are followed by images of surprising beauty. The Swedish dancer Niklas Ek, the show's clown, spends forever pulling faces and fiddling with a microphone. But he ends his sketch by climbing up to a basket, hanging from a rope but fixed to one side of the stage. You expect the basket to be released, to leave Ek swinging over the stage. But no: he curls up in it and goes to sleep, and the show goes on.

The six performers includea contortionist, Raphaëlle Boitel, of whom I'd love to see more. Her positions are extreme but never grotesque, the lines of her body graceful. She scuttles over a gate like a spider, hanging upside down. In half a twist she reappears upright, twined round the gate post. La Veillée des Abysses is uneven, but it's often astonishing.



Dance Theatre of Harlem tours to 15 May ( www.worldwidedanceuk.com); 'La Veillée des Abysses' is at Warwick Arts Centre 15-18 April (02476 524 524)

Comments