Dance: Arty-farty in the regions

SPRING is in the air and each morning's post brings a heap of notices for small dance companies on tour. Thanks to regional Arts Council thinking, those who live in, say, Tunbridge Wells are much more likely to see cutting-edge contemporary dance than they are to see mainstream or classical. This may seem forward-looking, but the success of a policy that promotes what a funding authority believes people ought to see over what most of them might prefer hangs on the quality of the material. I've been trekking about this past week, sampling out-of-town shows as they begin the provincial trawl.

The best thing to be said about Faking It, the show being toured by the 10-year-old company Motionhouse, is that it is just 70 minutes long. The second best thing is Simon Dormon's set, in which 12-foot brushed- steel walls and curvaceous white plinths, which look like offcuts from the Hayward Gallery, slot together in ingenious ways to form a designer adventure playground. Each item - a slide, a giant swingboat, a carousel - sets strenuous challenges for the dancers. Gosh, I'm almost whetting my own appetite. Yes it does look fun but the performers put paid to anything as simple and unaffected as that.

Co-choreographers Louise Richards and Kevin Finnan feel compelled to deliver a social critique. Faking It, says their programme note, "is about living a lie". It's about "the fact that we are not living our own lives any more". Faking It "continues the company's odyssey into the dark side of human nature where raw and emotional choreography laced with humour [sorry, missed that], charts the extreme physical actions of desperate characters".

Perhaps I simply object to the "we". None of this touched on my life. I only know I'd be alarmed to encounter any of the five young female performers - Nike-shod, grim-faced, thug-fisted - alone in the ladies loo.

They claw their way up the sheer steel walls and balance spreadeagled on the upper edge; they hurl their bodies across the floor and compete in vicious spurts of breakdance, snarling and punching the air like prize fighters, only nastier. At one point the top bully takes control of a seesaw and subjects another girl - imprisoned in its hollow base - to a prolonged shaking as she's flung from side to side. I imagine this use of dance as didactic theatre is serviceable for the school workshops which state-funded companies are expected to give these days. Girl power, good; girl gangs, bad. But for pounds 60,000 a year of tax-payers' cash I think adult theatregoers might expect a little more subtlety.

Another female ensemble, the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, has earned high respect in the past for its delicate and thoughtful synthesis of old Indian culture and the thrusting modern values of second-generation British Asians. Steeped in the temple-dance form, Bharatha Natyam, Jeyasingh's lovely dancers have managed to take up a contemporary stance while presenting an old-world mystique. But for the current tour Jeyasingh invited avant- garde British choreographer Wayne McGregor to make the steps. The result, a piece called Intertense, is an unholy mess.

Gone are the gorgeous open-palmed temple shapes. Enter the crew of the Starship Enterprise: blank-faced women with chainsaw arms, slip-jointed shoulders and a sad suspicion of disco thrust about the hips. Their music is the din of aircraft noise, their past is a void and the future looks sterile. A companion piece made by Jeyasingh, sits more happily on the dancers, but departs so far from the ethnic source as to be unrecognisable. Not one of High Wycombe's large Asian population could be counted in the audience. I'm told they prefer to take their culture neat and I'm beginning to appreciate why.

Union Dance takes its dancers from a wide racial mix and aspires more to street cred than art-house seriousness. Its current show, Dance Tek Warriors, has the sublime distinction of being the first contemporary dance project to be inspired by a computer game: PlayStation's slash-and- slay combat cult Tekken. But in fact gladiatorial violence doesn't get a look-in. Martial arts such as Aikido and Capoeira merely provide an exotic framework for voguish sequences that wouldn't look out of place on a club dancefloor. His cast of space-princesses in amulets and pointy bras and bare-chested warriors play up to the theme in a way that's both glamorous and fun.

It wasn't always clear where each of the four choreographers took up the baton. But I liked Michael Joseph's opening sequence which really made the dancers resemble Tekken characters by use of rippling body-waves and slow poses animated by that peculiar screen shudder you get with computer animation. American Doug Elkins set the last part to Asian party music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with such an eclectic and wild sense of style that even simple folk steps looked drop-dead cool. I'm all for super heroes who can skip a figure-of-eight and still be pronounced "well bad" by a class of 13-year-olds in the audience.

Shobana Jeyasingh Co: Bristol Arnolfini (0117 929 9191), Fri to Sun 22 Feb. Motionhouse: Cambridge Junction (01223 412600), 24 Feb. Union Dance: Canterbury Gulbenkian (01227 769075), Wed; Tunbridge Wells Trinity Arts (01892 544699), Sat.

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