Place Prize: The Place, London

Mozart at the mall? You must be barking mad

Alain Platel called his latest piece Wolf, though it could have been Woof given the benign playfulness of the 14 collies and retrievers who take up residence on stage for two hours, wagging and sniffing, peering into the stalls and generally doing what doggies do. An assortment of vagrants, street performers and deaf-mutes make up the human element of Platel's cast, his Belgium-based company Les Ballets C de la B. The "wolf" in the pack is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a selection of whose operatic arias is played live on a balcony by the Viennese orchestra Klangforum, providing a sublimely ordered counterpoint to the chaos all around.

The setting is the back exit of a shopping mall, the sort of graffiti'd wasteland where rejects and dejects gather. And Platel's theme, played out via a string of loosely connected vignettes, sung, spoken and danced, is the randomness and indifference of fate. Mozart's sopranos bewail the treachery of love, and we see the human wreckage that can result. Platel professes himself fascinated by what's known of the composer's own family dysfunction. In another age, might Mozart's genius have found itself outside Tesco's, pissing against a wall? Happily Platel plays out these thoughts with a light touch. When his German bag-lady starts to rant, we are able to pick out the words "Ich bin total super" and "Ich bin Laden". A man falls from a balcony encased in windblown plastic and backflips his way out of it. An aerialist shins up a length of sheeting and swings like a censer, grunting with her exertions as a Mozart adagio plays serenely on and the dogs take no notice whatsoever. We soon see that these canines live by their own social code, and their cheerfully random sexual activity becomes not only a source of unscripted hilarity, but also a reminder of the layers of consciousness we do not share with them.

In such a wilfully unruly scheme, inevitably there are moments that flag. Yet the sheer quality of musical performance gives an edge to Platel's hands-off direction. I loved his insistence that great music connects with the human spirit whatever you choose to throw at it. Wolf gave us African improv Mozart, disco line-dancing Mozart, deaf-and-dumb Mozart, even a disintegrated drunk-depressive staggering about to Mozart. And it moved me almost to tears.

Platel, who formerly worked with disabled children, got into dance quite by chance. Arguing with a friend over a piece he'd seen, he swore he could do better. Had he been British, he would have found his way to The Place, which has long been a crucible of choreographic talent, and has now upped its profile with a big-money prize. The fun thing about The Place Prize semi-final is that the audience gets to vote via a hand-held gizmo, and every night the artist with the most votes gets handed £1,000. It's everyone's chance to play dance critic and tooth fairy. My choice of the five acts fell on the one that made me laugh: a droll duet by Tom Roden and Pete Shenton. And guess what? On the night I voted they didn't get a sniff at the cheque.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Place Prize: The Place, London WC1 (020 7387 0031), to Sat

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