When Javier de Frutos took over Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre two years ago, there was no knowing what he would do with it. The Venezuelan-born choreographer's colourful past has included a spell as a solo performer who only ever appeared in the buff, and an enduring love affair with Tennessee Williams. This last was so consuming that you had to wonder why, given the sheer weight of words in the American's plays, de Frutos had chosen dance as his medium.
The company's brief visit to Sadler's Wells, part of its UK spring tour, lays out the de Frutos strategy fairly and squarely. On a bill in which three of the four pieces are danced in sumptuous, floor-sweeping dresses, it's clear that Phoenix is set on restoring lushness and beauty to the contemporary dance stage, a quality that 40 years of British choreography had effectively banished.
The opening work also answers the Tennessee Williams conundrum. Blue Roses – inspired by the play The Glass Menagerie – uses a recording of the playwright's own reading of the script (voicing all the different characters, plus stage directions), as if it were music.
At first, naturally enough, you're struck by the specificity of the words: dance alone is never so direct, and it's a shock. But once your eyes and ears have adapted to the novelty – dancers playing out real-time conversations in shivery, sinuous moves – a thrilling symbiosis emerges. The bodies don't merely illustrate the words, they climb inside them, responding to the emotional subtext like a kinetic Geiger counter.
Anita Hutchins as the crippled Laura is angular and awkward on receiving compliments from her gentleman caller Jim, her body softening as she warms to him. But when he confesses to having a fiancée, both are suddenly a twitchy, jittery mess. You see, as clearly as on a diagram, the tangled mix of thwarted hope and shame, the social embarrassment, quite literally their wrong-footedness.
How inspired, too, to represent the domineering mother, Amanda, with two dancers, a twin-headed monster of elaborate manners and coy evasions, fluttering ghostly grey frills as she ingratiates herself with the visitor she hopes will take her daughter off her hands, turning to multi-limbed wrath when she finds herself deceived. I confess, if I'd had the idea for Blue Roses described to me in advance, I would have doubted it would work. In the event, it's the strongest merger of text and dance I've seen.
American modern dance of the 1940s didn't shy away from full-bloodedness either, as evidenced by a brace of works by the Mexican-American pioneer José Limón. The Moor's Pavane, considered his masterpiece, is a treatment of Shakespeare's Othello, complete with handkerchief plot, murder and awful reckoning. Set to a grand and sombre orchestral suite by Purcell, including the terrific tune made famous by Britten, Limón's dance quartet is a marvel of distillation. Lushly costumed, the two women negotiating more-than-floor-length frocks with aplomb, the piece has the stagey thrust of much mid-20th-century theatre (think of Olivier's Othello, for a start). But the handsome formality of Limón's Renaissance dances, and the seethe of emotion that bursts through them, beats down your resistance to melodrama. This is strong meat for strong stomachs.
Even more powerful, in my view, is Limón's setting of Bach's Chaconne, which I first saw long ago unforgettably danced by Baryshnikov. Dane Hurst, who resembles the Russian star in physical stature at least, gives a luminous account: austere, rooted and classical in the broadest sense. Arms are raised and curved like bulls' horns, proudly Hispanic. Quick flicks of the foot answer the gymnastic violin. A long, leaning, gently dipping and rising balance envisions a great gull negotiating thermals high above the earth. Its lonely grandeur, and its spareness, are terribly moving.
We have Rambert and the Royal Ballet to brush down British dance's mid-century classics. It was time someone put the shine back on America's.
At The Lowry, Salford (0870-787 5790) 6 & 7 May; then touringReuse content