If proof was needed that low ticket prices are the business, there it was last week at Sadler's Wells. Thanks to the Jerwood Proms initiative, several hundred people paid just £5 a head to bag a prime view of one of the major events of Dance Umbrella. The deal was that they had to stand up. OK, so I was smugly installed in the stalls , but I have enough experience of promming to recommend it. If the show is sufficiently absorbing, you forget that your legs have turned to lead. If not, you can slip away disturbing no one, consoled by the cash you haven't spent.
That there were no obvious deserters on Monday night was a bit of a mystery, given that the more-than-two-hour show peaked within 20 minutes. Were folk hanging on in hope of something better? This, after all, was a big new number from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, prime mover of the European avant garde; so prime, in fact, that Dance Umbrella has made her the focus of this year's festival, devoting a string of live performances, film screenings, an exhibition and a study day to the choreographer and her company Rosas.
D'un soir un jour is certainly a project with grand ambitions. Beginning with a reworking of the 1912 Nijinsky ballet set to Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, it roughly follows the passage of the sun through one day to the glimmering dusk of Debussy/Nijinsky's Jeux, again recast by Keersmaeker to incorporate a sequence from the cult Sixties film Blow Up and a cast of 15.
In between come several great slabs of orchestral fare from Stravinsky and the British composer George Benjamin - the latter's Dance Figures written specially for Rosas - and all four pieces referencing Debussy. But oh, how predictable the dance became. De Keersmaeker has built her reputation on being able to laser a path through the densest musical textures, making difficult scores accessible to us all. Over time, though, you detect a formula. Where the music is hefty, the dance turns skittish. Where the music is scintillating and quick, the stage-picture almost grinds to a halt. Sure, she supplies something modish to look at while the composer works through his logic, but it's more distracting than enlightening.
The brilliant exception is the Debussy opener, which has the sparse discipline of a haiku. First, the choreographer recalls her historical source in a sleek shorthand of Nijinksy's ballet. The twist is that this faun is a woman, though we don't know for sure until the reclining creature raises one arm to reveal a bare breast.
Ten silent minutes pass before a lone flute announces the famous score. Now Keersmaeker begins again, this time with a male faun (British dancer Mark Lorimer, more coyote than goat-like god). There are very nubile nymphs, too, their pubic hair barely concealed by gauzy scraps. There's a typical Keersmaeker moment when one of these garments falls startlingly to the floor, sending the naked girl sprinting into the wings. The whole piece beautifully catches the quivering languor of the music, almost but never quite reaching its climax, as if that would be just too much effort.
The less-is-more principle was even more strongly endorsed in another Dance Umbrella offering. Does dance come any more minimal than two blokes parked on chairs? When Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion devised their Both Sitting Quiet six years ago, they never imagined it would be an international hit, leading to a second hit, The Quiet Dance, and now to round off the trilogy, Speaking Dance. What is it with dancers and talking? But these two gnomic and likeable types turn the trend right on its head. This is far from confessional drivel - it's vocal sound as a vital dynamic, one that links directly to the dance essentials of rhythm, texture, phrasing and pulse. It's also - hurrah! - great entertainment, as the pair rattle through antiphonal routines, sing folksongs against an alien pulse and perform the craziest dance charades. This is 50 minutes of highly intelligent fun, and the sooner they tour it the better.
* Dance Umbrella, Sadler's Wells, London (0870 737 7737) ends todayReuse content