Dunas, Sadler's Wells, London

The odd couple do a sand dance
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The Independent Culture

A choreographer can be many things: creator, director, lightning conductor.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who by birth straddles two cultures, Flemish and Moroccan, adds shapeshifter and chameleon to the mix, and sings his own music too, in Arabic and Latin.

His performing style is even harder to pin down. From Zero Degrees, his hit show with Akram Khan, you'd have called him a hip-hop artist. From Sutra, with the Shaolin monks, more an acrobat. Now, in a show called Dunas ("Dunes"), he gets up close and personal with Maria Pages, a flamenco dragoness breathing fire.

The two are dynamic opposites. She's tall and fierce, flicking long dark tresses like a weapon. You'd think she'd have him for breakfast, his slight body and wide, domed forehead giving him the air of a faintly bewildered child. Her flamenco stance is straight-backed, vertical, full of angry tension, while he's rubber-limbed, appeasing, mild, operating at the level of the floor.

Dunas takes its inspiration from the Sahara, where the dunes are in constant flux, yet the landscape never changes. Swathes of tented gauze, lit ochre to create bright plains and plunging shadows, gives a vivid impression of windblown sand, and also of the veiled desert population, as the pair press their faces and bodies against the tented fabric, or swaddle each other in an airless embrace.

Cherkaoui, ever the explorer, has clearly taken lessons from Pages. In some of the flamenco sequences he dances alongside, impressively clacking his heels and coiling his arms in synch with hers. If lacking the authentic flamenco hauteur, he's compulsively watchable. Later, he does his own thing, falling bonelessly into fluid rolls and shoulder stands, or performing a virtuoso hand ballet, calligraphy written in air. He does a turn as cartoonist, too, drawing in wet sand over a light box, the resulting images filling the back wall of the stage: Adam and Eve, the tree of life, growing foetuses, youth and age.

The whole enterprise teeters on the edge of whimsy, and a gluey sentimentality I hadn't associated with Cherkaoui before. Much of the live music is bracingly good, and Pages magnificent in her stormy solos, but there could have been more of the latter. In all, a very mixed evening. But you guess that was rather the point.

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert catches the famously future-forward Dutch National Ballet

Dance Choice

Live Fire Exercise is the latest Royal Ballet production from Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House (from Fri). Forms a triple bill with crowd pleasers by Balanchine and Wheeldon. At the Brighton Dome (Wed), Les Ballets C de la B premieres Gardenia, a part-comic, part-tragic study of ageing cross-dressers. Go, Brighton!

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