Dance: And now for the war dance

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Indy Lifestyle Online
CONSIDER the following scenarios. Both are true, and take an unholy stretch of the imagination to conceive as subjects for dance.

1) They were known as the war's Romeo and Juliet. He was a Serb and she a Muslim. She agreed to escape to the Serb side in the hope that they could make a new life together in exile. But they were betrayed - killed by sniper bullets as they made their dash for freedom.

2) Many thousands of Muslim and Croat women were herded into schools and warehouses and kept prisoner for months at a time. By day they were forced to sit with their knees pulled up to their chests and their heads lowered. By night they were repeatedly raped. By inseminating the enemy, men can demoralise their victims to the point of self-destruction. This often proved to be the case.

These are the parallel themes of Darshan Singh Bhuller's Planted Seeds, a 90-minute piece of dance theatre premiered last Tuesday at The Place. OK, I hear someone say, that just about takes the biscuit. We've had the Aids ballet, the red-hot-poker history ballet, and now we get the bloody Bosnia ballet. Is there no end to the human depravity live performance is willing to tackle?

Probably not. And that's as it should be. After all the thousands of miles of newsprint and videotape that have spooled out since these despicable events took place, the details can still stir us to a state of rigid disbelief. And Bhuller - an erstwhile star of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, now a maker of dances and films - clearly believes that reminding us of the horror and the cause of it is the only way forward. He's still young enough to believe in the power of impassioned art to change the world. And here he shows he's also mature enough to handle it with restraint. I have rarely encountered anything so searing, so shaming, so truly terrible, as the images and insights offered in this piece. Yet in fact the audience witnesses neither gang rape nor the lovers' sudden deaths. The violence happens elsewhere, largely in our preyed-upon minds.

There are no sets or props. No special effects. Two thick ropes dangle from the ceiling. There's a noisy sliding door in a far corner. Otherwise, the backdrop is a bare brick wall of The Place adorned with fire hose and heating pipes. But some hideous dramatic alchemy means that what we remember seeing is a prison, a torture chamber, and a war-zone's front line where women risk their lives daily to buy a loaf of bread.

As I said, we are spared having to watch rape. Instead, we observe the women's anticipation of their nightly humiliations, their gestures of mutual support, and their reactions after the event. You may well wonder how physical movement alone can express these things. On the most obvious level, Bhuller does it through a highly developed language of desperate and vigorous contortion. Women hurl their bodies about the floor in accelerated imitations of coition, fast-forwarding their memories like a tape they are anxious to discard. They fling themselves at walls, or flay their bodies with their own hands in paroxysms of self-loathing.

But on a subtler level, even their calmer and lovelier movements are shot through with pain. In a dancer of mature technique such as Lauren Potter, every muscle tells a story. Hoisted high up the ropes, aerialist Lindsey Potter seems to uncoil her tortured spirit as she spins gently to the ground. Young Sarah Nicholls - making her professional debut - captures the impetuous fury and ultimate damagability of youth.

But movement is still only part of the picture. It's the music (the slow movement from Gorecki's Third Symphony) and sinister visual motifs that send an increasing electric charge through the piece. At regular intervals, the women's dances are interrupted by the opening of the door to reveal a brilliantly lit, smoke-filled room, dominated by a sour and paunchy male figure (veteran Bob Smith) wearing a grubby vest and an unpleasant look. It takes only a twitch of his belt-buckle for us to know what happens when a girl is hauled in and the doors close again.

This would all be too much to bear without some glimmer of light. And Bhuller unflinchingly provides that too: snapshot glimpses of happier times in a nightclub when Sarajevans of all descriptions bopped along to U2, or launched into athletic party-pieces of Serb or Croat national dances comically laced with American breakdance. "Romeo" and "Juliet's" shy courtship within this context is touchingly done. And there are even moments of beauty to be gleaned from the rape-victim's dances: when generous feelings of mutual support inspire skin-on-skin duets which in any other context would be gorgeous.

But why am I telling you all this? Absurdly, Planted Seeds showed for two nights only at The Place last week, and at time of writing there are no plans to show it again. That's not unusual in dance, but the compelling morality of this piece surely puts it in a different league. Just as the women of Bosnia have found an eloquent champion in Darshan Singh Bhuller, he now needs a champion of his own.

This is important work that needs seeing. Film couldn't have handled it so subtly, nor straight drama. Contemporary dance - with its useful ambiguities, its complex ability to suggest narrative and disembodied feeling at the same time - has found itself an unaccustomed but incisive new role. Lest we forget.