Brandstrup and his company Arc have made a feature of retelling classic stories through contemporary dance - a rare thing outside ballet. But where Frederick Ashton could depend on recognition of, say, the pumpkin and mouse transformation in Cinderella, Brandstrup comes up against a blank with the satyrs and maenads of the Ariadne plot. Why are these greeny- blue characters behaving so strangely, jerking their arms and tipping backwards in a druggy kind of swoon? What have they to do with the chap in the gold suit who dances clutching a glass of wine? I confess I had to go scurrying to my classical dictionary to look up "maenad" and then in retrospect, all Brandstrup's intricate physical imagery fell into place. But I fear that some of the audience at the Britten Theatre simply went home confirmed in the view that contemporary dance is incorrigibly obscure.
Ditto Brandstrup's other new work, his version of Stravinsky's Les Noces - a depiction of the marriage rite as imperative to the life of the community, rather than a celebration of love. Brandstrup's bride is properly timid, terrified and gauche, and seems to prefer waltzing wildly with an older man (her father?) than her betrothed, but her repeated confrontations with her childhood self are not always perfectly clear.
Just as you're beginning to wonder whether complex contemporary movement is capable of carrying narrative at all, along comes Brandstrup's old hit, Orfeo, to show how it can be done. This one's a stunner, whether you know the old snakebite story or not. In this version, death comes after a bout of arm-wrestling with the grim reaper, his attacks signalled by dizzying dips in the electronic score, as if someone had just pulled out the plug. Euridice's death-throes are similarly subdued - a kind of winding down like a clockwork doll, made all the more sinister by our anticipation. The costumes, too, ensure that the audience is sensually acute - the luscious sound of Euridice's full-skirted dress is, I'm sure, meant to be part of the Arc experience - and all three of these short pieces look glorious. In an age of dumbing down we should perhaps be grateful to anyone who (however falsely) credits their audience with having had a classical education. All Brandstrup needs to do is supply better programme notes.
The work of Jonathan Burrows is more of a puzzle. In the Stop Quartet four performers march, totter, slouch and sometimes just simply walk across a space marked out with bars of light like a crossword grid. There's nothing virtuosic or even elegant in what they do, yet it's compulsively watchable. Is there a strategy to this game? What are the rules? The players watch each other with hawk eyes to synchronise their moves. Sometimes they smile knowingly, sometimes they seem foiled. On Wednesday at The Place I thought I might have got it. The answer is "Mornington Crescent".
Burrows's new piece, Quintet (five can play at this one) goes further and puts a series of multiple choice questions to the audience. The game starts with four performers marching to and fro, arms swinging. The fifth member walks in a small circle, tapping a series of tubular bells hanging from a string. G C E A G. Then he changes direction and we get the tune inverted. Hmm. Then he stops and asks, "Do you see the dancers more clearly when you hear bells?" Silence. "Do you see the dancers more clearly when you are listening to questions?" Silence again. "Do the dancers move more clearly in the silence?..." and so on. If any bright spark ever offered a reply to this developing rhetoric it would bring down the whole delicately poised pack of cards. But no one wants to bring it down. The effect of watching Burrows's riddle-in-motion is like spring-cleaning your brain. Delicious.
Jonathan Burrows Group: Manchester Dancehouse (0161 237 9753), 6 & 7 June.Reuse content