THE CRITICS DANCE: Tappers set festival off on wrong foot

Self-regarding camp seems to be an American speciality. And it sure don't travel
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You win some, you lose some. Choosing what to see is an act of faith if you haven't seen the act before, and you can't rely on publicity. Those glowing verdicts on past triumphs usually turn out to be from the Hicksville Evening Gazette. But you hope to be able to rely on a major festival to offer some sort of guarantee. I've always supposed that a major perk for the organisers was to spend half their working year trekking round the world sorting wheat from chaff, singling out star acts for next year's programme. Perhaps not. This year's Brighton Festival sets the tone for its dance line-up with the world-renowned Trisha Brown Company from New York (watch this space), but it kicked off last weekend with another American import, one we hadn't heard of, and one I have a hunch we won't be hearing of again.

Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum have a talent for names. And that's about it. Chvala (pronounced "koala", though not as cute) is a tap dancer from Minneapolis, home of one of the few truly indigenous American art forms, rhythm tap. But the topper-and-tails routine is not where Joe and his chums take their cue. They claim inspiration from the whole gamut of Western percussion idioms: French-Canadian step-dance, Appalachian clogging, Mexican zapatilladas ... all fascinating stuff, but what we actually get looks more like common-or-garden dance-school tap, tarted up for student Rag Week.

For their opening number they simultaneously hoof and sing, flapping about in silk kimonos and feathered turbans a la Lord Leighton. The vocals are an Elizabethan madrigal, performed with some skill against a loud skiffle of feet and jumping on and off chairs. The characters gibber like commedia clowns and execute painful ballet plies, piling on the anachronisms like relish on a hamburger. The gag might have raised more of a smile if the audience had not been told that this was "a deranged mock-baroque comedy" (Elizabethan baroque you understand). But a mockery it certainly was. Self-regarding camp seems to be an American speciality (remember Momix's shows late last year?), and it sure don't travel.

Despite his shaky grasp of the subject, Chvala is clearly keen on history. The show's climax, Berserks, is inspired by the Norse warrior cult dedicated to the worship of Odin and the ecstasy of battle. Chvala quotes at length from a tract by one Snorri Sturluson: "His men were as frantic as dogs or wolves: they bit their shields and were as strong as bears or boars; they slew men, but neither fire nor iron could hurt them. This was known as 'running berserk'."

I was thankful for this programme-note snippet as something to cut out and keep. The visual memory was gratefully wiped of all but a blare of red lights and people running in circles waving sticks. Any discernible pointers to the theme misfired. A chorus-line of broomhandles, I realised only later, was supposed to be a Viking longboat; what looked like athletes flinging the discus was meant to be a stylised fight with shields. A counterpoint of pseudo-tribal mouth music, all too briefly, made an interesting aural diversion, but the introduction of a live band, Savage Aural Hotbed (great name, terrible music), added nothing but decibels.

I spent the evening with my hands over my ears. Others in the audience clapped politely. They looked like first-time dancegoers - and, on this evidence, there may well not be a second time. If the Brighton Festival wants to retain its reputation as the Edinburgh of the South Coast, it has to do better than this.

Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum: Ebbw Vale Beaufort Theatre (01495 302112), tonight; Crewe Lyceum (01270 537333), Wed; Wakefield Theatre Royal (01924 211311), Thurs-Sat. The Brighton Festival (01273 706771) continues to Sun 26 May.

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