Beauty and the beastly

DANCE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LONDON-BASED followers of Rambert Dance Company could be forgiven for thinking that the company has forgotten them, so long is it since it played in the capital. The reason usually trotted out is that there is no suitable venue. Now the company has announced, for its 70th birthday in the summer, a season at the Coliseum (some venue). Then will be revealed the results of the patient two-year makeover devised by director Christopher Bruce - a plan to restore Rambert as a distinctive, major force in contemporary dance.

Provincial touring has been part of that strategy, allowing the company to build its repertoire in stages, dropping a premiere into its mixed programmes here and there. Several of these works are the result of music director Mark Stephenson's scheme of inviting composers and choreographers to work in tandem - an obvious enough idea, rare in practice.

Kol Simcha (the name for a Yiddish musical celebration), by Rambert dancer Didy Veldman and composer Adam Gorb, had its first showing in Brighton last week and proclaimed the worth of such collaborations, yielding a score that you longed to hear again then and there, matched by dance so free and exuberant that the audience itched to join the party.

The theme of Kol Simcha is both memorial and celebration - remembering the six million Jews who perished but also the famous Jewish ability to find ironic humour at the bleakest of times. The piece captures all these moods, weeping and whooping by turns, with Fiddler on the Roof-flights of soulfulness, rude jazz-band trombone and wailing Klesmer clarinet accompanying a deliciously unruly melange of party dance-turns.

The dancers meet and mingle, flirt, squabble, swig wine, stage a wedding, slump, doze, and tease the on-stage musicians. They scoot across the floor in orange-crates, swing from ladders, and compete with each other in a fast Jewish tango that sends their trilbies and shabby gabardines flying. In its homogenous inventiveness it's like West Side Story in a Jewish ghetto, and utterly life-enhancing.

It was everything the evening needed after a thin and badly paced start. Mark Baldwin's Banter Banter is an enjoyable 20-minute sequence of light and witty pure dance which begins and ends in a snatched kiss. But any appetite it whetted ebbed away in the subsequent interval - longer than the piece itself. Perhaps provincial theatres insist on two intermissions to maximise bar sales. But would the company have countenanced this lapse in the pace of a London show?

Christopher Bruce's three-hander, Swansong, has only one prop: a wooden chair, which gains in significance as his scenario unfolds. One protagonist sits; the other two, in khaki uniforms, sidle round the chair. The two in uniform break into a series of incongruous vaudeville tap-and-cane routines, menacing in their slickness, which we come to recognise as a dance metaphor for sarcasm, cruelty, possibly physical and mental torture. Their victim - a prisoner of conscience, perhaps - counters by twisting and wheeling about the space with defiant virtuosity but flagging energy. The chair becomes an object of security, the only solid fact in a world awash with falsehood.

Bruce created Swansong 10 years ago as a response to a novel about torture and interrogation, and it has lost none of its insidiousness. The original casting was male, but this time an all-female cast (led by the remarkable Didy Veldman) gives the piece a very different slant. Where the male interrogators suggested sheer brutality, women seem to underline the sexual element in sadism. And this frisson of titillation renders the piece more discomfiting than ever.

Can it be right to make beauty out of evil (for Bruce's gymnastic routines, particularly when the three dance together, are stunningly good)? Can we sit complacent before a representation of crimes we know to be rife even now in South America? It is not the same as seeing a play like Death and the Maiden. Ugliness is not a part of this vocabulary. And clever as it is, Bruce's piece cannot begin to probe the deeper issues of human depravity. Yet few dance-works provoke such conflicting feelings. Perhaps that is his achievement.

No one in their right mind would expect an easy ride watching disabled people dance. CandoCo, whose company of eight includes three performers in wheelchairs and one with no legs and only half a torso, seem well aware of the potential for mawkishness. Yet against the odds, much of what they presented at the South Bank last weekend was startlingly lyrical. In Cantador, an empty wheelchair partners a tango; in Once Upon a Time in England, an able-bodied man duets tenderly with the limp body of a chair-bound woman. Yet nothing prepares for the sight of the truncated David Toole, whiffling across the stage on his powerful hands, suggesting by turns a scampering ant, a leaf in the wind, a hovering bird, a disembodied human soul. This extraordinary performer has now retired from dance, leaving CandoCo to redefine its goals without the main attraction. He is off to Argentina to make a film. The can-do philosophy knows no limits.

Rambert Dance Company: Oxford Apollo (01865 241631), Tues-Sat.

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