Try this Brazilian slam dance if you're hard enough

Deborah Colker Company | <i>Barbican Theatre, London</i>; Royal Ballet School | <i>Royal Opera House, London</i>
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The Independent Culture

When the Brazilian Deborah Colker gave up professional volleyball to run a dance company in Rio, she didn't leave sport behind - she took it with her. The preening muscle-culture, the militaristic gym routines, the savage bursts of competitive energy, the affinity with pop and fashion: it's all there in Mix, her latest show which appeared as part of the Barbican's Brazil:Brasil Festival.

When the Brazilian Deborah Colker gave up professional volleyball to run a dance company in Rio, she didn't leave sport behind - she took it with her. The preening muscle-culture, the militaristic gym routines, the savage bursts of competitive energy, the affinity with pop and fashion: it's all there in Mix, her latest show which appeared as part of the Barbican's Brazil:Brasil Festival.

From the start Colker seems determined to show the 14 precision-honed bodies in her company as machines and nothing more. Inspired, apparently, by Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Olympics, squads of women in tiny briefs and boxer boots perform furious semaphores in workout mode. Colker herself is among them - a small blonde toughie with gritted teeth. Nerve and timing are essentials in her shows. The men launch themselves horizontally over lines of bodies like crickets on a twig. Others dive at the floor, averting injury by a split-second flip of the chest. Emotion exists solely in motor sensation. Frightening.

There's further alienation in a sequence about catwalk fashion, and I hoped it was tongue-in-cheek. Wearing garments that both conceal and reveal - transparent bird-cage crinolines, or gauze bustles that peter out at the crotch - women strut and flaunt their perfect limbs. Men in kinky trousers undulate like cobras. One woman unzips her own dress and has entirely wriggled out of it by the time she exits the catwalk. It's all a horrible tease. You sit there reflecting that these creatures must sometimes go to the dentist or stay at home with a cold. Glamour, and its modish expression of the moment, is a denial of humanity, not an elevation. Perhaps Colker thinks about these things. Perhaps not.

She does take an interesting line on love, though. A compilation of old pop ballads - Elvis, Serge Gainsbourg, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder - allows so few bars from the tracks that each singer seems to be elbowing the last aside with an ever more urgent claim on the human heart. Meanwhile, couples fling themselves at each other, not tenderly but savagely, in increasingly complex acrobatics. One woman carelessly up-ends her lover as if shaking the drips from a discarded Coke. A man brutally flattens his by collapsing backwards on top of her. Couples lunge, grab, wrench, slap, attracting and repelling like industrial magnets. It's a telling skit on the absurdities of passion - entertaining too, though Colker never allows her performers the indulgence of personality. They're all just bodies.

The intended climax of the show was stunning: a vast blue and orange wall with figures scampering up it and across it with the ease of flying monkeys. Trouble is, once you've been watching hard-to-believe physical feats for an hour or so, you get blase. And if the impact of Colker's finale was muted it's because we'd already seen these people disregard gravity and live.

Given the diversity of the spectacle we call dance, you'd think the value of elderly repertoire in the training of young dancers would be more often questioned. Do art colleges compel students to paint like Titian before they're allowed near Lucian Freud? It's certainly that way at the Royal Ballet School, to judge by its annual end-of-term show at the Royal Opera House on Wednesday. Most impressive item was Ashton's La Valse, danced to Ravel's glittering ballroom premonition of world war. The 17- and 18-year-old dancers not only did justice to it technically, but gave every impression of having grasped the nebulous message encoded in its doomy glamour. They are no fools. And for this reason it struck me as odd that their show contained no properly contemporary element at all. No sleek, Lycra'd bodies. No sharp edge. I wonder how we can ever match the best European ballet-based companies such as NDT when we blinker our trainees to the present?

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