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Out of Time, Barbican, London<br>Dancing on Your Grave, Riverside Studios, London

Colin Dunne takes his world titles, and his &#8216;Riverdance&#8217; stint, and sticks two fingers up to Irish tradition &#8211; while ghouls remind us of our mortality

While Riverdance sucks its final coach parties into the cavernous Hammersmith Apollo (“strictly last season ever,” so they say), its polar opposite is drawing a more esoteric crowd to the bowels of the Barbican. Irish step-dancer Colin Dunne held three world titles by the tender age of 10 and, in 1995, replaced Michael Flatley as the star of Riverdance. Since then, though, he has been exploring contemporary dance, and – reading between the lines of his solo show Out of Time – now has mixed feelings about the tradition in which he grew up.

Staking out his current position, Dunne appears first in trackie bottoms and bare feet. Deconstructing the traditional steps, slowing them so we can take in the detail, they acquire a startling sensuality, the soft-soled frottage making you think of the texture of flesh. Breaking more rules, he adds an upper-body freedom, loosening his arms and rolling his shoulders. It’s Dunne’s two-finger reproach to the trammelling rules of the competition scene, where trying anything new is artistic suicide. A soundtrack of metal-capped footfalls traipsing long, empty corridors invokes the loneliness of the long-distance Irish dancer.

Archive film clips continue the history lesson. A woman whose face we never see steps tirelessly and endlessly, feet flying, her body a chaste blank, the folds of her skirt flapping hypnotically. A portly man in a suit defies his girth with twinkletoes buoyancy. A trio of old gaffers draw a crowd in a County Cork town square. Then there’s the 10-year-old Dunne, his hair combed flat, prancing like a dressage pony around the set of Blue Peter in 1978, and showing the viewers his trophies.

The show’s title, Out of Time, takes on a second meaning as the 40-year-old Dunne dances, in his own private tempo, out of synch, while watching the oldies on film. And it comes as a shock to realise that, until 50 minutes into a 65-minute show, you’ve heard not a note of Irish music. Dunne prefers to dance to white noise, or makes his own music from the traditional rhythmic mnemonic “Rashers-and-sausages, rashers-and-sausages”, later replaced with a rebellious “How do we do that and why do we do that?”. Does he protest too much? It takes a tradition to break with one, and it was the hierarchy of a competitive and conservative culture that won Dunne his spurs. Yet this show also feels like a liberation. The world surely has room for both.

“You’re a short time living,” bellow two top-hatted ghouls in Lea Anderson’s latest music-and-dance burlesque, “and a long, long, long, long, long time dead!”. The show Dancing on Your Grave is meant to mark the 25th anniversary of the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs, the modish all-female and all-male troupes that occupied the sharp edge of British independent dance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But this is a bit of a false premise, since Anderson’s choreography back then relied for its effect on the magnification of behavioural tics, using large numbers of dancers moving in synch. This show has just three dancers, plus musicians Steve Blake and Nigel Burch, so it’s less a reminder of Anderson’s glory days than that times have grown distinctly stingy.

But perhaps I’m missing a joke, because the entire sequence of music-hall-style numbers, accompanied by a pair of glumly strummed banjos, is about the finality of death. Witty lyrics, delivered deadpan – with the emphasis on the dead – typically rhyme “final act” with “pancreatic tract”, while the two female artistes and a male Pierrot pose, pout, gurn, and deftly turn on a pin in a space only three metres square – surely most dancers’ idea of hell.

‘Out of Time’: (0845 120 7554) to 28 Feb. ‘Dancing on Your Grave’: tour details at www.thecholmondeleys.org