Edinburgh Festival: Dance: Putting on a brave Front Not enough time, alas, for this 'Child' When the performers lost out to the swamp things

Zo Anderson
Saturday 16 August 1997 23:02

So far, the best dance of the Festival has been in the opera programme: Mark Morris's choreo- graphy for Rameau's opera Platee is full of charmingly silly production numbers. Most of the opera is set in a swamp, with dances for frog-headed attendants, for turtles with shells, for snakes with long green tails. My favourite was a twitchy, wriggly number for Platee's court of swamp things, each dancer bouncing through reptilian movements. Apparently irregular floor patterns somehow fitted precisely to Rameau's rhythms and musical structure. Not all the dances were as good as that - the libretto does specify dancing babies and philosophers, and in practice they were an over-extended joke - but the general effect is gleefully entertaining.

The official dance programme was less satisfying. Tharp!, Twyla Tharp's programme of new work, is desperately disappointing. It all looks strangely familiar, as if Tharp's usual energy, drive and intricacy have been recycled from other works. Her dancers, chosen for this tour, are marvellous, but they cannot make this choreography look exciting.

Heroes does have a certain gloomy energy. A woman hurls herself against a line of three men, and is thrown back while other dancers churn about the stage. The dancing is full of struggles and as Philip Glass's score gets more bombastic, so do the dancers, who spin and kick with great style and conviction, but the effect is wholly uninvolving.

Sweet Fields, set to American religious music, including Shaker songs, is lighter but equally uninspiring. Tharp seems to have little interest in the musical phrases or even the rhythms; she sets the dancers floating about the stage in apparent ecstasy without ever engaging with the words or the music. You can tell which are the Shaker hymns because the dancers flap their hands about. The gesture sometimes looks patronising, sometimes twee, but it never looks deeply felt. Or even felt at all.

Worse was to follow. "66" is set to tacky Fifties music, and it is a tacky Fifties ballet. Everything is cute, comic and infinitely predictable: flirty exchanges between a couple, an allegedly funny "old timer" with a walking stick, and romping dances for the whole company.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Fish starts with a voiced-over account of colonial atrocities in Australia and of the company's Aboriginal identity. This is a worrying beginning. Choreographer Stephen Page, seems determined to tell us his message, rather than making it clear through performance. Without such an explanation, Fish would be confusing.

Its main subject is the waters of Australia, and people moving among them. Portable reed-beds are drawn across the stage, and the performers step through them to dance. A soloist performs what appears to be traditional Aboriginal dance. His authoritative, strongly phrased dancing - much the most interesting part of the evening - is too quickly superseded by Page's own very repetitive choreography. The movement vocabulary is straightforward but limited; a section which seems to be about the identity of urbanised indigenous Australians looks distressingly like an aerobics class. The music, by the choreographer's brother David, does nothing to undermine this impression. The production just isn't up to its subject matter.

Jenny Gilbert is on holiday.

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