James trained as a classical dancer (the Royal Ballet School, no less), and began his career by "taking all the midget roles" in ballet. But there's no trace of that drill in the work he makes now. In the trio Juice (what a way with words!) there is an elastic laxness about the movement itself, while the interplay of his dancers is as taut and complex as a cat's cradle. Taking a low centre of gravity, the body folds out and in on itself at the speed of a wallet; hands pad the floor like feet, or grab a heel to swing it as if the leg were somehow detached, a prosthesis whose pliancy and stretch must be tested before regular use. The dancers - one tall and dreamy, two tiny and quick girls - seem comically oblivious to each other's presence, even when they collide and one body shunts another into a new stream of motion, or a high-wheeling foot hooks itself around another's neck and sets that body wheeling too.
Much of the second piece, Minty, is performed with the dancers' backs to the audience, an invisible forcefield (the audience's gaze?) tugging violently at their bodies - by wrist, hip or shoulder - as they try to resist. My Big Pants, the finale, shows how far James has dehumanised the body by introducing short bursts of naturalism. The dancers suddenly leave off being mechanistic spinning tops and become men and women miming road directions to an imaginary friend. Then off they go again, swivelling on anything that touches ground - shoulder-blades, bums, knees, spraying sweat like a juice extractor. Inscrutable Jeremy James's thoughts may be, but I couldn't drag my eyes away for a moment.
Over at the Peacock, choreography of a deadlier kind was in force. The Way of the Warrior was a five-day celebration of Asian martial-arts forms and their relation to the performing arts - a relationship I'd guess was explored to some effect in the workshop sessions, but which was not very obvious in performance. It's surely the mental and spiritual discipline behind each one that makes them fascinating - the founder of Zen Buddhism is said to have stared at a wall for seven years, but that doesn't make much to look at.
Of course, there are the ceremonial costumes and decorative weaponry. But it's impossible to overlook the fact that the techniques have been developed as ways of killing people, not amusing them in theatres. The Thai combatants tried to mitigate this with an uneasy stab at slapstick, complete with stagey chuckles and cod deaths. But two Indians thrashed each other with batons at the rate of 150 blows a minute, and another pair lashed out with six-ft flexible swords. A one-man representation of Japanese Kabuki was so rarefied and drawn-out that the audience all but dozed off.
But they woke up for the finale: a rare out-of-Tibet appearance of the famous Shaolin monks, whose star act was a demonstration of "steel jacketing", which enables a man to harden his body against the heaviest of blows. Three stage hands came on with half a telegraph pole and rammed the chief monk in the solar plexus. Everyone gasped. Some people cheered. Others were mortified. The beleaguered Dalai Lama might be resigned to
doing showbiz nowadays (see Cinema, page 7), but this kind of spiritual circus is not enlightening in the least.
Jeremy James: Sudbury Quay Theatre (01787 374745), 28 Apr.Reuse content