Stephen Petronio Company, Barbican Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This year's Dance Umbrella kicks off with Stephen Petronio in the character of an old sea-dog. His new work, I Drink the Air before Me, is about storms, stylised or emotional in the music and dancing, rather more literal in the framing devices. It has some memorable dance images, and some lulls.

Petronio, a New York choreographer, became well-known here after tabloid-baiting collaborations with Michael Clark in the 1980s. Since then, he's worked with artists from Rufus Wainwright to Anish Kapoor, and with British companies including Scottish Ballet and National Dance Company Wales.

I Drink the Air before Me, a title that quotes Ariel in The Tempest, marks 25 years of Petronio's own company. To celebrate, he's there on stage, before and during the show. The artist Cindy Sherman dresses him in a dotty compilation of sailor fashions. His shaved head is covered by a grizzled wig and an officer's cap; he has a Captain Ahab beard, waders and a brass-buttoned naval jacket. His dancers, wrapped up in sou'westers, are only modestly nautical by comparison.

Prowling around before the show, Petronio gets the audience to help him arrange ropes around the auditorium. "I won't be your man if I can't also be your salty dog," he recites in a rasping voice. He's entertaining but inconsequential. Once the dancers are ready, he watches his company from an improvised crow's nest halfway up a girder.

Composer Nico Muhly is onstage with a chamber ensemble, layering crashes of piano, chewy, textured strings and plaintive woodwind. The New London Children's Choir, conducted by Robin Corp, sing from the auditorium and on stage.

The dancers peel off their raincoats to dance in stripy beachwear. They go from quiet, focused steps to big, swirling moves. A woman stands braced on her partner's thigh, gazing off into the distance – like a lookout, or a figurehead. Another starts a slow, steady solo during a turbulent blast of music.

Sometimes the dancing sails over the music; then it will follow Muhly's score precisely. An Ariel figure, dressed in a boiler suit, flits through the dancing. In one solo, he strikes an alert pose to each parp of a percussive trombone solo. Another man stands reaching upwards. Is his arm straight? The stretch of his fingers and tension of his shoulder give this pose an oddly sinuous line, with more curves than you'd think.

Those moments stand out. Elsewhere, there's more generic material. Petronio's dancers can be serene or flailing, but some sequences are just dutiful – dancers carefully getting on with their arabesques and pliés. The unison moves tend to be duller than the solos. Petronio's company are happiest when they peel off in their own directions.

The conclusion lacks punch. Muhly and Petronio bring everyone on stage, singers and dancers, but sound and grouping lack weight. The storm peters out at the end.

Dance Umbrella continues until 30 October (www.danceumbrella.co.uk)

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