Dance Umbrella Birthday Gala, Sadler's Wells, London

Too much rain on Umbrella's parade
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The Independent Culture

Dance Umbrella is now 25 years old. It's an extraordinary showcase for contemporary dance, covering celebrated artists and those just starting out, national and international, some dazzling and some duds.

The Sadler's Wells Birthday Gala had all of the above, but took a while to find its fizz. At first it seemed a timid tribute for so hair-raising a festival. An extract from Shobana Jeyasingh's Polar Sequence, 1 is an arbitrary selection from Random Dance's recent repertoire, a dull piece danced well. Richard Alston's Dangerous Liaisons is much more substantial, but it's very new to Scottish Ballet. They gave a decent performance, but are not ready to take risks with it.

If You Couldn't See Me is a downbeat solo by Trisha Brown, who keeps her back to the audience throughout. The swings of her arms seem to say, "Let's get on with it", then she wanders aimlessly on.

Brown is still a better bet than Bill T Jones, a choreographer best known for polemic. His solo, Ionization, showed him as a stiff and bombastic mover, putting most of his energy into milking curtain-calls.

Wayne McGregor's 2 Human is a limited showcase for Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur. They dance it brilliantly, but McGregor's punk stomps and aggressive partnering leave no room for line or rhythm. In fact, this evening was McGregor overkill: 2 Human, an appearance from his company Random, and his own solo, Xenathra. He's an odd performer, lean and frantic. Confronted with a Handel aria, he pinches in his elbows, knocks his knees and writhes. His twitchy choreography is most interesting on his own body, but it's still unmusical. He ignores Handel's rhythms without really finding his own.

The other new solo, William Tucket's What's New, Pussy-cat? is wafer-thin: Zenaida Yanowsky, in hold-up stockings and pussycat ears, lurches resentfully through a Tom Jones number.

Spirits lift with Charles Moulton's Nine Person Precision Ball Passing. Three rows of dancers, one above the other, pass coloured balls in precise time to A Leroy's gently cheesy music. They start row by row, twining hands over and under to pass the balls primly on the notes. The patterns get wilder and wilder, balls passed from top to bottom row, or in lunging diagonals. In one bravura moment, the central woman has balls circling her torso, then her head, passed by interlaced arms - pocket Busby Berkeley. Delightfully silly, and perfectly timed by students from The Place.

Mark Morris's shimmering arms were the great dance image of the evening. His solo to Lou Harrison's Serenade for Guitar picks up flamenco references (he even has castanets at one point) but flickers into Indian-dance poses, too. Movement ripples from arched-back fingertips through liquid elbows and smooth strong shoulders, every stage catching a shift in the music. Morris, never thin, is now definitely fat; his torso has lost its former strength and flexibility. But he's a great dancer on rhythm alone.

She Bit Her Tongue is an extract from Siobhan Davies's Plants and Ghosts. The dancing takes second place to Caryl Churchill's virtuoso text, one sentence repeated and embellished. Deborah Saxon delivers the text in sign-language, while Tammy Arjona dances around her. By the time we reach the final, gargantuan version of the sentence we know all about the woman's dentist, her food, her married lover, their relationship, the restaurant, its waiters and dishwashers. It's a bravura number, though the bravura is really all Churchill's.

Matthew Bourne's splendid Spitfire ended the programme. It is underwear-catalogue ballet. Men in vests and pants take up beefcake poses that often echo famous ballet groupings for women. They look noble and ludicrous at once, ironic and weirdly convincing. Bourne's timing and construction are marvellous; his dancers are stylish and heroically funny.