Murder at the bottom of the stares

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DANCE versions of novels and plays are staple repertoire, but until now no choreographer has attempted to use dance to tell a story made famous by film, borrowing not just its plot and characters, but the nature of film itself. Even allowing for the suggestive properties of music, lighting and costume, it's a tall order.

But the Danish dance-maker Kim Brandstrup loves a challenge. With Arc Dance Company he's tackled Shakespearean tragedy and Greek myth. Both won awards. Now he has turned his narrative talents to film noir, the crime thrillers of the Forties and Fifties which so consummately matched their literary originals that you can't read a Raymond Chandler mystery without seeing their shadowy sets and hearing their shivery soundtrack. In Crime Fictions, which opened at Sadler's Wells on Tuesday, Brandstrup seeks out the essence of 101 whodunnits and rolls them into one generic plot. The only character missing is the detective. It's the audience which has to do Bogey's work.

The curtain rises on Craig Givins's glitzy penthouse set. A huddled group stares at the floor. The head of the household has been shot. As the group pulls away, we zoom in on a corpse splayed across a short flight of stairs. Later, as events leading up to the murder are replayed, we keep noticing those stairs. Characters tumble over them, or crawl, or fall, or cartwheel. They never merely step. As in the movies, one innocent physical feature becomes a prominent reminder of someone's guilty secret. But whose?

Every one of the characters harbours some grudge against the victim: the daughter, usurped in Daddy's affections by his new young wife; the two sons, sexually upstaged; the daughter-in-law, disinherited; the maid, harassed by the boss; her lover, the butler, enraged. Even the glamorous wife, stiffly encased in Dior cocktail suits, seems sulkily dissatisfied.

Clues are offered in dance-code through a series of encounters which, in the best cinematic tradition, have the spectators' eyes on stalks. Dangerous high lifts and stylised jaw-slugs chart the breakdown of filial respect; nimble frog-jumps and balletic spins mark out the sons as virile contenders for their pretty stepmother; the servants' duet reveals passion, servility, and at least one duplicitous nature. The patriarch's obsessive concern for his wife - is she too hot or too cold? Does she want the jacket on or off? - is deftly woven into a smooching connubial tango.

Brandstrup drives the action with panache, if not always crystal clarity. There is a problem in identifying the characters early enough so that important detail doesn't pass unheeded. But by half-time the audience has caught up with the plot, and the double denouement - what actually happened, followed by the accepted lie of what happened - is beautifully worked through. More crucially, the show delivers razor-sharp dancing throughout, and set-pieces so grippingly eloquent and inventive that finally it doesn't matter who did the murder. What matters is that someone very clever did the dance.

Over at the bare black box that is The Place, more distinctive work opened the "Spring Loaded" season, the annual catalogue of independent British dance-makers already on their way to making a name. Aletta Collins immediately sets herself apart from the mass of Siobhan Davies acolytes by her sparky sense of fun. How often one sees dance described as "witty". But Collins has a true comic gift and an eye for quirky casting. Who else could find a Rowan Atkinson and an Incredible Hulk and get them both to dance like Fred Astaire?

On Wednesday she presented Che Gelida Manina ("Your tiny hand is frozen"), a sequence of vignettes set in a shared flat where the inmates listen to Puccini (of course) while squabbling over the single-bar electric fire, prompting toppling towers of bodies piled on one kitchen chair. Constant flirtations and rejections keep the household on emotional hot coals, culminating in one couple's breakfast-time row during which the other flatmates perform an embarrassed routine on tiptoe with boiled eggs stuck under their shoes. Their relief when the pair kiss and make up is finely balanced by the satisfying sound of crunched shells as they rock back on their heels. Watch out for Aletta Collins. Dance needn't be serious to be seriously good.

Arc Dance: Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), Wed & Thurs. 'Spring Loaded': The Place, WC1 (0171 387 0031), to May.