Sango/Iyanu, The Place, London<br/>ENB: Giselle, Swan, High Wycombe

Thunder in their hearts
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The Independent Culture

Sakoba Dance Theatre, now based in Newcastle, proclaims its postmodern approach to African dance. This double bill has traditional and modern dance steps and themes, but tends to keep them separate. In traditional steps and rhythms, Sakoba's dancers look strong and confident. When they turn to abstract dance, the whole performance gets a lot wispier.

Sango starts with drumming. Sakoba's three musicians circle the stage, beating hand drums, shaking rattles. The line between dancers and musicians is blurred: that circle looks like a ritual movement.

The work is named for a thunder god, revered in Yorubaland, where the company's founder and choreographer Bode Lawal was born. Dennis Addor's Sango jumps and storms, dreadlocks flying. The drums crash when he enters, then the rhythms soften to suggest rain. Other personifications are less clear; when Kamara Gray appears in blue draperies, is she a water goddess or just another person? When Zenith Blythe confronts Sango in a stomping battle, is he a mortal defying the thunder?

The structure of Sango is blurred, but it has appealing images and some fervent dancing. People huddle together, sheltering from the storm, or strut forward to invoke the god. Hips and shoulders pump and roll, feet stamp, but the movement starts in the centre of the body. Torsos curve forwards and back, arching and contracting.

Lawal recently returned from America, where he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and found some starry patrons, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Sharon Stone and Oprah Winfrey. At the same time, he studied American dance, aiming to develop his own style. The second piece, Iyanu (Miracle) is Lawal as modern dance choreographer. It's abstract, but pious.

Iyanu aims for blissful serenity: it's a transcendental angel-choirs kind of number, though there's no singing on the soundtrack. The composer David Karagianis mixes recording of Lawal's speaking voice with beats and atmospheric noise. Musicians play live alongside the taped score. The dancing is slow, movements deliberate, ecstatic. It suggests an earlier period of American style - the 1970s, not the modern dance of Mark Morris. Indeed, Iyanu's Western touches look old-fashioned.

Giselle is the most famous of Romantic ballets. English National Ballet's production is a return to Romantic delicacy, with traditional designs and gentle, soft-edged poses. This 1971 production is by the Essex-born Mary Skeaping. In 1994, her version was replaced by Derek Deane's weird updating. It was a relief when, last year, ENB returned to Skeaping.

Her production has its stodgy moments, but ENB respond vividly to the drama of the story. As Hilarion, Giselle's peasant admirer, André Portasio makes a bold figure, ready to denounce the aristocratic Albrecht. The first-act peasants bustle eagerly.

David Walker's sets carry on the romanticism, with a shimmer to his scene-painting. The first-act costumes are straightforwardly pretty, while the Wilis - female ghosts who prey on men - are in misty tulle skirts.

This performance was led by Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, ENB's glamour couple. In the first act, at least, Edur isn't natural casting. Neither cad nor heedless, he partners Oaks with a devoted tenderness that makes nonsense of the story. But he's completely at home in the ghostly world of the second act. His dancing is smoothly assured, and his partnering makes Oaks a genuinely insubstantial ghost. Oaks, too, is strongest in the second act.

Myrthe, the queen of the Wilis, is the strong point of Skeaping's staging. She's given space to establish herself as the monarch of this realm, and Sarah McIlroy dances with fierce, grand clarity. ENB's corps are in fine, alert form.

'Sango', Bowen West Theatre, Bedford (01234 793 345), 25 March; 'Giselle', Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448 844), to 25 March

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