From the heart of Africa

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Indy Lifestyle Online
UNDER unseasonably sunny skies London's annual Dance Umbrella opened last week, a festival so varied and all-embracing that any dance event outside its canopy risks being ignored. So the Ghana Dance Ensemble might have missed out, but to judge by Wednesday's turn-out at Sadler's Wells the promise of large-scale spectacle from one of the hottest places on earth was enticing enough. People came expecting colour, lively music and some kind of sub-Saharan chorus line. What they got nearly blew them away. For the sheer, combustible joy of moving to music, these West Africans are unmatchable.

The problem of presenting a dance culture that has its roots in tribal custom is, of course, that it was never meant for the theatre. Originally there was no split between performer and audience; those who could dance, danced, others sang, clapped, or mopped musicians' brows. Everyone had an active role, and all observed the gestural etiquette on which the dance is based. In short, the experience was not only aesthetic, but social, even moral. Given the exigencies of modern stages and sedentary audiences, it is hardly surprising that the Ghana Dance Ensemble's show seems to lack emotional depth. The marvel is that anything of the tribal spirit survives at all.

The first half of the show is a dramatised telling of a village legend: a king is usurped by a stranger who rids the community of its local monster and thereby finds favour with the womenfolk, who are the ones who really call the tune. A corps of 25 supplies a wonderful opportunity for big set-pieces, and the company brings these off with elan, often incorporating large props - feathered pompom fans for the men, large gourd-bowls for the women - into the synchronised movement. In general, it is the men who put on the most dazzling and sexually suggestive display. Glossily bare-chested, in harem pants in cerise, coral and emerald, they flick their hips with gleeful abandon and perform astonishing abdominal thrusts and rapid whole-body undulations that make you think their ribs are made of jelly.

The second half - an allegory of life in urbanised Ghana - is harder work for the audience, the joyful clarity of tribal dance giving way to a tricksier fusion with contemporary styles. Still the beat is invariably faster than most of the audience can tap a shoe to, and the pneumatic energy never flags. This is not a dance that deals in subtleties, or great precision; it is about dynamism, abandon to the fire in the feet and the belly, and unwavering good humour. No one leaves the theatre without a ridiculously wide grin.

By contrast, the Dance Umbrella festival opened not with a bang, nor even a whimper, but dead silence. New York solo performer Dana Reitz eschews music in her work because,she claims, it would distract from the music of what she does. And what she does is this: she walks onto an empty stage, steps into spot- light, and moves her hands and arms about (very beautifully).

At least this was the impression of the first, long, 10 minutes of her show, Private Collection, at the ICA. In about the 11th minute, you register that something important has happened: instead of seeing a pleasant, neat- haired, trouser-suited woman, you are beginning to see an organised collection of parts. Ten fingertips, 10 knuckles, two wrists ... operating in what appears to be complete isolation, one from the other.

What Reitz has been doing for the past 20 years of her singular career is to identify, isolate and refine tens of thousands of separate gestures and tiny movements. On stage, she reassembles these into improvised "phrases"; a simple roly-poly swirl using both arms will be repeated and repeated in an unstoppable flow, each repetition incorporating some minuscule change so that, after a time, the shapes have amoeba-ed into something quite extraordinarily different, yet always traceable to the original roly- poly.

Sometimes Reitz's long, elegant toes come into play, flexing independently like fronds on a sea bed, occasionally a whole leg will swing, a shoulder will roll or click. There is no narrative, no "meaning", but a fierce logic is at work and a ferociously nimble brain is controlling and ordering all these elements. It is dance at its most cerebral, most abstracted. And it's a brave way to open a major festival.

Ghana Dance Ensemble: Birmingham Rep, 0121 236 4455, Thurs-Sat; then touring. Dance Umbrella 95: various London venues, 0181 741 5881, continues to 11 Nov.