Protein Dance, Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London

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The Independent Culture

After Protein Dance's success with Publife last year, the company is back, with The Banquet, to offer more observations on human mores. The Banquet reminds us of who we are in the animal world. Crude, instinctual tactics sabotage the sophisticated social rituals of the occasion portrayed. The four elegant guests revert to a grunting menagerie, and polite words lurch into barks and snuffles.

The Banquet is entertaining, funny and intelligent, even if it does a good job of reminding us that manners really do maketh the man, and beneath is an animal driven by sex and survival. "From goo to zoo/ from zoo to you," sings Richard Strange. "From dinosaurs to Diana Ross/ we are not better, we are not badder/ just one step further up the evolutionary ladder." The lyrics are his, and he plays a variety of instruments - ukulele, accordion, guitar - to add to the recorded music.

Strange is the piece's non-dancer - the butler who organises everything and who with suave aplomb attempts to keep the guests in order. He carefully ladles out the dinner party's soup, and he doesn't seem too disconcerted when everyone licks and slurps directly from their plates.

In one witty episode, Strange dons a safari jacket and binoculars to observe the mating antics of Luca Silvestrini and Esther Weisskopf. "The male weighs four times as much as the female," he whispers in David Attenborough mode, as Weisskopf wraps her legs round Silvestrini's neck in a vicious head lock. "It takes all her muscle power, all her ingenuity."

The cast's other woman, Tasha Gilmore, has the vowels as well as the luxurious memories of a Sloane Ranger. But when Strange's butler throws a raw lump of meat to the three other guests, she is first to plunge into the leonine scrum for its possession. Jean Abreu is the fourth dancer of this company, which was founded in 1997 by Silvestrini and Bettina Strickler, who choreograph and direct.

The dance and music cleverly tap into various European folkloric traditions, underlining the piece's anthropological theme. Dick Bird's Expressionistic, distorted house has no front wall, allowing the surrounding grass lawn to extend inside and become the carpet - another example of nature invading civilisation. The whole set might have been designed in a moment of drunken nausea, its lurching perspectives matching the action's dislocation.

The movement and dialogue, allied to a well-considered scenario, produce dance theatre at its best. The closing image is potent: a worm-like creature, wriggling out of her cocoon to emerge as a spangled trapeze artist, who leaves to climb into the night sky and fly. "Out of the soup/ Into the loop/ From single cells/ To things in shells," sings Strange. "From Hula Hoops/ To pressure groups;/ The story has just begun, it isn't over." Charles Darwin would have been proud.

Protein Dance tours the UK this autumn