In awe of society's outcasts

DV8 | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Béjart Ballet Lausanne | Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture

Lloyd Newson has never been one to mince words. A few minutes into his new production for DV8 we get a detailed breakdown of what the audience has bought with their ticket.

Lloyd Newson has never been one to mince words. A few minutes into his new production for DV8 we get a detailed breakdown of what the audience has bought with their ticket.

"For £2 I do this," says a dancer, demonstrating a straightforward plié, "and for an extra £5 I do graceful arm movements." We're left to guess the going rate for what he does next, which is to whip off his trousers and execute a series of bouncy entrechats stark naked. The question left hanging in the air is the title of the show: Can We Afford This? In a consumer-led society, it's saying, there is a price on everything.

Less a dance show, more an acerbic cabaret, the evening unfolds on a slope of Astroturf representing a public park. All sorts of folk meander in and out of view, some of them the sort it's not polite to stare at: a fat man, a pensioner in a bikini, a person of confused gender, and most eye-averting of all, a man with no legs, not even stumps.

"Do you pee in a bag?" someone asks him brusquely. "Ever had a girlfriend? Do you believe in God?" It's what we all secretly want to know but hearing those thoughts out loud on stage prompts a ripple of nervous laughter followed by what I'd guess was a communal blush.

Just as you were starting to feel comfortable with this creature truncated below the ribs who walks and dances (quite independently, thank you) using his long arms like the front half of a chimp, suddenly you're aware of the real cost of living for David Toole: fielding other people's curiosity.

He doesn't need our pity. "God, you're useless!" he exclaims to someone later in the show. And sure enough, every one of the 17-strong cast fails to measure up in some way or other. "Hi, I'm Lawrence and I weigh 330lbs," says a man in underpants, beaming the cheery smile required of the obese to cover the pain. Septuagenarian Diana Payne Myers boasts she's had four lovers under 30, but eagerly submits to having her wrinkly midriff pinned.

Still more desperate to please is transsexual soul-diva Paul Capsis, who suspects his ethnic features are destroying his chance of hitting the big time. Even slim, pretty Ros Hervey is an ingratiating wreck, performing a manic routine with an elasticated skirt in the hope of finding a look that suits. "I can do schoolgirl..." she says, yanking it up to her armpits, "or elegant" (round her ankles). "But perhaps you prefer more arse? Am I being too forward? Do you find me a bit much?"

Alternately funny and squirm-making - sometimes both - the sketches were devised by the company in workshop fashion, a process roughly equivalent to a year of intensive therapy. As a composite essay on social camouflage and conformism, it drives its points home hard. But Newson spoils his pitch by bunging in other ideas.

I loved the spooky sight of leggy Kate Coyne on pointe and all fours, mounted by Toole to create a weird, loping, wading-bird silhouette. But it seemed to belong in a different show.

And what were we to make of Francois Testory rolling on the floor amid the windblown contents of a dustbin, dressed in high heels and singing falsetto? That society simply discards what doesn't fit the mould? I'm unconvinced.

And so to Maurice Béjart, the crowned emperor of European modern ballet, who has certainly done his share of rejecting all but the most perfect bodies for his troupe. Be warned: an evening with Béjart is a potentially divisive experience. People either love or loathe him, and should you be sharing a night out with one of the opposite persuasion, it could be the end of a beautiful friendship.

Take your pick of verdicts on Adagietto, an item which sees the superb Gil Roman sharing the stage with a wooden chair and an extract from Mahler's Fifth. Here is a man, stripped of all pretence, who tries but fails to make an emotional connection with the serene high-romanticism of the music. Each time he yields his body to its wave-like power, he is brought up short by an inhibiting awareness of self. It's an essay on existentialism, brilliantly relayed through the medium of dance.

Or: Here is a man with a terrific ribcage and a headache. He can do a mean arabesque and a chest-stand on a chair, but why? Treading imaginary tightropes, playing supplicating doggies, blowing kisses to the air: perhaps he's hoping for a job with Marcel Marceau. But it's clear why he's stripped to the waist. It is to stop his heart making a mess all down his sleeve.

Yes, of course I'm deserting my duty as a critic. But those who admire Béjart's effusive style won't give a damn that I think it's continental hogwash.

There is mercifully less to dispute in Béjart's newest work, Elton-Berg, which hangs on the conceit of performing the same steps to different music - caustic Alban Berg vs pappy Elton John. Ditto his Bolero, which turns table-dancing into bold, climactic spectacle in response to Ravel's familiar score. Tacky, but yes, powerful theatre too.

DV8: Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (020 9760 4242) to Friday; Béjart Ballet Lausanne: Sadler's Wells, EC1 (020 7863 8000) to Saturday

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