Do dancers dream of electric frogs?; DANCE

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In France they know him as the Wizard of Albertville, the man who snazzed up the 1992 Winter Olympics ceremonies and the most popular choreographer since Bejart. Over here, Philippe Decoufle is just another of those Continental phenomena that, absurdly, rarely cross the channel. All praise to the Woking Dance Umbrella for nabbing his Euro-hit Decodex on the tail end of its two-year tour of victory.

Decodex is literally like nothing on earth, an hour-long movement cabaret peopled by creatures Dr Doolittle would have been hard- pressed to invent. Electrified froggy things hop and bob in crepuscular silhouette; a zebra- striped herd shod in yard-long flippers charges furiously back and forth, a swarm of insects wield huge rubber probosces in a fantastical game of French skipping; an underwater fashion parade shows off elegant variations on a lobster pot (Vivienne Westwood, why weren't you there?).

Less lavish than Cirque du Soleil, less intimate than Cirque Invisible, Decodex inhabits that strange no-man's-land between dance and circus where whimsy can so easily tip into Eurokitsch. But Decoufle is saved by his fascination for homo sapiens, lighting on its oddities with all the acuity of an anthropologist from Mars. It's the simpler images that linger: a tall, thin man dancing with a small, square woman; a chap who relearns how to walk with a giant manhole-cover stuck to one foot, and, in a daringly low-key finale, a near-naked man who simply traces with eloquent thumbs the external contours, then the internal channels of his own body, a thing both of tender feeling and of brute plumbing.

At the other end of the modern dance spectrum is improviser Laurie Booth, who also appeared in Woking with a new work called ACT/ual f/ACT/ual. Booth belongs to the movement known as New British Dance, which signifies no more than that he answers to no one, follows only his own fashions, and falls easy prey to daft typography.

Watching "Stormgarden", a duet he made last year which formed the first half of the double bill, the moves are so sure, it's hard to believe they are not pre-set. Against a wall-trembling soundscape by Hans Peter Kuhn, Booth and his partner, Gary Lambert, move thoughtfully through a range of distinctive, rounded gestures, limbs rotating slowly in their sockets, arms used like legs, for travel and balance. Lunging handstands and one-armed handsprings rise and fall in slow motion as if the air were viscous, offering resistance. The muscular control is extraordinary. More impressive still are "lifts" in which one man's body appears to defy gravity, rolling up and over the other, like brushes in a carwash.

The new work is busier and less effective. It is billed as an event "combining three artistic disciplines" (is there any dance enterprise that doesn't?), and I expected the most intriguing contribution to come from a disc-jockey called Scanner. His role is to sit on stage mixing mobile phone conversations into a prepared musical score. This, we are told, creates a "virtual environment" for the dance, whatever that means. At any rate, those who came expecting prurient thrills along the lines of the Squidgy tapes were disappointed. There wasn't even so much as a spontaneous "meet me off the 8.47". There's a law against listening live, and Scanner's twiddlings so distorted what was left that it turned out more like virtual wallpaper.

The "set" offered more excitement: two poles covered in shaggy metallic scales (bits of videotape) that twizzled for the duration of the piece at different speeds. One moment there'd be one splayed out like a fir tree and the other straight and skinny, the next both would be spinning at full pelt like tinsel tornadoes. I was mesmerised, and kept having to drag my eyes back to the dance, whose improvisational element this time was its downfall: too long, too loosely-knit, and for all its easeful style, too dull. In the nature of impro, of course, next time might be different.

It's rare for avant-garde choreographers to be able to revisit old work, but last weekend the Royal College of Art staged a retrospective of the veteran Rosemary Butcher, just as it might a sculptor or painter. The setting was apt, for Butcher's pieces are made to be seen in a gallery, not a theatre, and often form an extension of a piece of visual art, as in Spaces 4, an early work in which the space is marked out by Dieter Pietsh's white, angled shards of broken plaster wall, with the dancers slotting between them.

As in any work by Butcher, the emotional content is nil. So determined is she not to pander to the senses that even the lighting is grey. In Unbroken View (1995) we are invited to contemplate the minimal lines of movement, the cool discipline of form, as three dancers lie down, get up, crouch or salute in different formations over a period of 40 minutes. That's a long time. Faced with a similarly cerebral work on canvas, a Ben Nicholson, say, at least you can walk away. Yet the pristine clarity of the performers' moves makes you believe they are tuned into some continuum of pure dance thought. The effect is both soothing and compelling.

Laurie Booth: Tunbridge Wells Trinity Arts (01892 544699), 26 April; QEH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), 3 & 4 May.

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