Deborah Colker, Barbican, London

A bull in a china shop. But no breakages
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The Independent Culture

A curious thing happened at the Barbican the other night. The pianist sat down to play the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in A, K331, the safety screen began to rise and, a few notes into the piece, the rear end of the Steinway began to rise with it, like the nose of a performing seal.

For those familiar with the work of Deborah Colker, the Brazilian choreographer who also happened to be playing the piano, this was all par for the course. In past visits she has sent her 18 dancers scrambling across vertical walls like demented spiders, she has had them perform under a power shower and swing from their heels on a ferris wheel. Gimmicky hardware is Colker's stock in trade, and for a heady two seconds, levitating pianos seemed like the latest wheeze. Until the crash came.

Happily no one was hurt, not even the Steinway, and Colker proceeded to play her bit of lilting Mozart with the same steely nerve she brings to her dancing. But the incident drew an unplanned parallel with the general thrust of Colker's latest work, which finds delight in toying with disaster. Girls scale walls on the horizontal while shod in teetering heels. A man veers off the edge of a table like a sky-diver having second thoughts. The entire company performs bullish manoeuvres on a stage tricked out as a china shop.

Given the title of the piece, 4 por 4, you half-expect to see all-terrain vehicles on stage. But it refers to the quartet of Brazilian visual artists whose work Colker exploits as her set. There is little sense in Cantos (Corners), a sculpture by Cildo Meireles, of how it might have looked in a gallery. Colker turns the disembodied room-corners into the nooks of a pole-dancing joint. Pouting girls cross and un-cross their legs, hug the walls slinkily with their thighs, and slither on their backs to a thumping rock anthem. Later they use the angles of the wall to walk all over their partners. The effect is of a Helmut Newton calendar shoot, the original artefact all but forgotten.

In Mesa (Table), it's even harder to guess what the artist was up to. We see a workbench on castors with three bodies on it. The man winches Colker's form into a stiff horizontal and wields her like a crowbar. A Smeagol lookalike in underpants does fancy handstands on a hidden conveyor belt. The point seems to be that the entire dance takes up less space than a tray cloth.

Victor Arruda's raucous paintings of crudely chopped body parts form both wall and floor of the next piece. Dancers in bright sneakers caper about making faces, throwing off speedy ballet jumps and clutching at their groins. As with all Colker's work you get a sense of bucket-loads of creative energy being fired at the stage with a spatter-gun. Some of it hits, most of it misses, but all is delivered with such sunny gusto and carnival flair that you feel a real sourpuss for wanting more from it.

At last, in Vasos (Vases), Colker delivers the spectacle everyone has been waiting for. As Colker's piano accompanies a neat ballet duet, the floor gradually fills with 90 ceramic vases arrayed in dense diagonals. Then Colker's dancers tempt fate, first moving gingerly among the rows, then dodging and leaping, then flinging themselves into apparently reckless helicopter lifts and rolls. There is no crash. The 90 jugs remain. One can't help but gape at the precision skill it takes for this to be the case. But are we talking dance, here, or tightrope walking? And is not trashing the china sufficient reason for a standing ovation? You look for significance, but none is there.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

The Deborah Colker season continues at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), Monday to Thursday

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