Dance: Dear, sweet Precious Little Sleep

WHEN Wayne Sleep's company of dancers introduced themselves by racing across the stage at the London Coliseum, most of them watched where they were going. His head alone revolved, uncannily, almost eerily, like Michael Redgrave's dummy in Dead of Night, to keep his face locked on the audience, drinking in their recognition and applause. He needs a spotlight in the way green plants need the sun.

Clearly, the man who called his autobiography Precious Little Sleep is going to suffer few pangs of self-consciousness, but it is still a shock, in the flesh, to see just how few. Whether as an arm-waving sailor in the shanty-based "Seascape", or as a tap-dancing cygnet in his parody of Swan Lake, he is incapable of giving less than his all, when many of us would settle for a portion. Dash to the London Coliseum, a medley of dances by Sleep and others, was every bit as generous as its creator.

There were nuggets of classical and romantic ballet - the ghostly pas de deux from Giselle, and the Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, danced by Thomas Edur and Agnes Oakes, from Estonia via the English National Ballet. Edur has always been a strong, dignified prince, and the pale, otherworldly Oakes is physically perfect as Giselle, but with enough reserves of glamour to make a dazzling Princess Aurora. Another virtuoso excerpt, from Don Quixote, was danced by Yat Sen Chang and the much-tipped l6-year-old Melissa Wishinski, who also turned up as a nymph in Kirk Peterson's languid version of L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune.

These moments of high seriousness were strewn, sometimes carelessly, among the comic numbers. The Giselle, for example, in which a guilt-ridden man dances with the spirit of the woman he drove to death, came immediately after a Wilson, Kepple and Betty sand dance. There are things too cute to be endured, and one of them occurred after Don Quixote, when Sleep turned up as Charlie Chaplin, twirling his cane, waggling a false moustache, falling off a park bench and rescuing a damsel in distress. WC Fields refused to watch a Chaplin film on the grounds that "the son of a bitch is a ballet dancer". He would have found this almost as excruciating as I did.

But even Chaplin didn't fill the heart with quite so much dread as the prospect of a "Tribute to Diana", set to Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl". You don't have to be a cynic to believe that the dead should be addressed in private, or at the very least not before a paying audience. In the event the dance was surprisingly moving. Sleep turned 50 recently, and all through the evening he struggled to reproduce the leaps and the pace of his youth. Now, at the end of a long night, suddenly he was fizzing through the air and spinning like a Catherine wheel. His tribute was deeply affecting, if only by virtue of how much he was affected while performing it.

To deny Sleep his corny moments would be like telling Lassie not to bark. He is a terpsichorean Liberace, a genuinely gifted dancer who found it was easier to make people love him by giving them lollipops. A large part of his appeal, for devoted fans, lies in the way that he can always be naughty without ever becoming erotic. By contrast, Twyla Tharp, in the second programme of Tharp! at the Barbican, presented a clearly defined sandwich of sex and chastity. "Sweet Fields" was the filling, danced in white to hymns from the Shaker tradition and the Sacred Harp. These songs, with titles like "Sweet Prospect" and "Virgins Clothed in a Clean White Garment", can make even Wesleyan chapel music sound depraved, and the dances that Tharp has set to them are miraculous combinations of purity, stateliness and spontaneity. They even play, wittily, with Shaker ideas of community and resurrection. In one of them a corpse, carried onstage by a group of dancers, tires of lying down and swaps places with one of his pallbearers, only for the new body to be thrown end for end, like the roof-beam at a barn-raising. The dancers seem already to inhabit the paradise the songs look forward to.

There is a bleaker future imagined in the opening number, "Heroes". Tharp's choreography reaches back beyond Philip Glass's symphonic arrangements to the strange, compelling mix of paranoia and boastfulness in David Bowie's original album. She turns the empty stage into what might be a prison yard - or a 21st-century seraglio, where both the men and the women are trading in their sex, and the most personal gestures can turn in a moment into body-builders' poses and harem dances. In this shifting world of bullies and victims, Roger Jeffrey brings a hart-like nervousness to the role of the outsider, while Nigel Burley is hypnotically imperious as the alpha male, able to frighten away his rivals simply by spreading his fingers like the fins of a scorpion-fish.

The movement is as energetic and fluid as any Tharp has created, but its impulses are always thwarted, building up an ever stronger sense of claustrophobia. When Gabriel Malone throws herself bodily at a wall of three men standing side by side, it is impossible to say whether she wants to break through and escape, or simply make contact. Either way, she fails. They don't even bother to catch her, just letting her bounce off and fall to the ground. Magnificent though "Heroes" and "Sweet Fields" are, it is a relief to find that the third piece on the programme is "66", set in a bachelor pad in south-west America, where denim-hugged swingers grapple to the accompaniment of angelic doo-wahs and swooning Moogs and Hammond organs. In this piece, sex is neither frightening nor forbidden: simply fun.

Jenny Gilbert is away.

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