Examples of modern dance when it communicates, and when it doesn't

Two faces of modern dance are on show in Britain these days -- the one self-absorbed, inward-looking, the other reaching out to audiences in new beauty of line and technique. To watch both examples of dance one after the other recently was to be reminded anew of the enormous vitality and freedom of contemporary self-expression in the Western world. As with classical ballet, the right music is vital. Companies go to great lengths to achieve just the effects they want, sometimes aided by new synthesizer and other electronic techniques.

Modern companies now emerging in Britain are often influenced by the divisive, dissonant elements of life visible in the media. These include the brasher qualities in the punk world and the pulsating yet indifferent, self-centered, and negative attitudes reflected in much of today's youth culture.

Of course, the essence of contemporary dance is freedom from the strict regimes of classical tutu and pointe techniques. But this freedom takes many forms.

With the Ballet Rambert here, founded by Polish-born Dame Marie Rambert and a nursery for experimental choreographers since 1965, the freedom breaks out into unselfish giving to the audience. The result of an evening with the Rambert, for me at least, was one of the happiest nights at the dance for many years. Others in the audience felt the same way: warm and enriched.

Watching the Mantis Dance Company is more difficult. Directed by a German, Micha Bergese, who has recently found fame as an actor in the movie ``The Company of Wolves,'' this company is different -- jerky, noisy, much more abstract, and yet, in its own way, arresting. Its rock music background included bird screeches, noises like a laughing kookaburra, and an assortment of other sounds and noises.

The audience at the small Ashley Theatre in suburban Epsom sat stunned when the lights came up at the end after one hour and 15 minutes of a dance without pause entitled ``Mouth of the Night.'' I could hear people saying, ``What do you think that was about?'' ``Why . . . ?'' ``What . . . ?'' A program note describing the music was of little help: ``an attempt to blend the musical theories of Russian composer Scriabin (1872-1915) with the traditional Petro drumming of Haiti.''

The Times of London dance critic, John Percival, was also unimpressed: ``A group called Psychic TV is responsible for the loud, rhythmic noises that provide a background apt enough in its mindlessness for the action on stage.''

I saw the Rambert at the Sadler's Wells Theatre as it gave the second program in its annual two-week stay in London during a spring tour of England. A triple bill included abstract, dramatic, and comic-national pieces.

The music was an equal partner with the dancers. On the same night the company used three separate groups.

For the abstract ``Wildlife,'' by British choreographer Richard Alston, 11 instruments including French horn, harp, and guitar were backed by a man called in the program a ``sound projectionist,'' whose electronically produced, eerie, junglelike sounds added depth and mystery.

The dramatic ``Death and the Maiden'' was danced to Schubert's String Quartet in D minor of the same name, played by two violins, a viola, and a cello.

The final offering was ``Sergeant Early's Dream,'' set MANTISMANTIS to traditional Irish airs played on stage by concertina, guitar, mandolin, whistle, flute, Irish fiddle, Uilleann pipes, and bodhran (an Irish drum).

Sets and lighting were sensitive and pleasing to the eye. A geometric sculptural mobile opened and fell dramatically at different moments. Dancers in shiny pastel leotards moved in and around it. The lighting for the Irish jigs ranged from silhouettes at dawn to a cloudless noon.

For the 75 minutes of the Mantis Company performance, the Epsom audience was left virtually on its own, apart from a single program note that described ``Mouth of the Night'' as a ``1985 Renaissance of the Romantic Ballet.''

Yet the five sections seemed to have little connecting thread. Dancers came and went. Some ate cookies and crackers on stage. Some shouted the same words over and over again. Director Micha Bergese, in 19th-century costume, played the manipulating force that dominated but never became part of the dancers. He stalked in, or skulked around, sometimes walking on his hands, never far from a large charcoaled cutout of a skull.

One reviewer, Nadine Meisner, wrote in the monthly Dance and Dancers magazine here that the dancing had ``no shape, no pattern to hold the eye. . . . As for Bergese's message . . . it remains a total mystery.''

That's fair enough: My Epsom audience was all at sea. Bergese, however, is known through ``The Company of Wolves'' -- and Mantis is one of only three contemporary companies to have been selected by the United Kingdom Government Arts Council to share an extra 88,000 ($115,000) for new productions.

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