Dance at the EIF

Three shows at three stars: The International Festival rolls out the big names to applause with no surprises

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 31 Aug 2009

The dance section of the International Festival is small this year. Thankfully, the programme has avoided such clunkers as last year's Sufi spinning – a fascinating ritual that had all the visual appeal of a Mass on stage – but lacks any obvious highlights. The Royal Ballet of Flanders take a daring spin through a kitsch version of a great myth – the pas de deux at the end is a stunning moment of beauty in an sometimes light and cheeky ninety minutes; former naughty-boy Michael Clark shows how he can use traditionalism to elegant effect; Gelabert Azzopardi proves that sometimes the choreographers really should wait until the bows before coming on stage. All are solid shows, but oddly conservative and polished to a dry perfection.

Flanders' Return of Ulysses is the most engaging. There's a little of that Belgian flair and adventure, as Penelope's side of the myth is told. Penelope is young and beautiful: the original Homeric woman is replaced by a feisty flirt, who plays off her suitors until they finally gang up on her. When Ulysses does return, they reunite in an uplifting pas de deux, before they both return to waiting since she has lost her ability to recognise the absent beloved. This tragic ending is emphasised by the use of Purcell's beautiful 'Dido's Lament'. This mixes two of the most erotic moments in classical epic, and works far more than the rather pointed moments of Athena's intervention or the court scenes. The intrusion of Poseidon in flippers is, frankly, childish and irrelevant – a sop to humour that adds nothing to the more serious intention underlying Penelope's struggles.

Michael Clark's two pieces make much of their sources in rock – but so what? The sound system of the Playhouse distorted the tunes and Bowie just sounded tinny as Clark's team went through their routines of elongated bodies and half-finished stretches. It would be nice if Clark realised that he is actually far cooler than the holy trinity of Bowie, Reed and Pop that he keeps evoking. None of them have made a decent record since 1984, and Iggy Pop seems intent on destroying his credibility until even the Stooges sound rubbish.

The second act builds to a climax, and the piece has been re-costumed since its last outing in Glasgow, but the trick of modern music and Clark's slightly awkward but classical movements is nowhere near as exciting as either his early gender-fucking or later classicalist choreography. It is a good three stars, even if the male dancers were not always perfect – but it is sad to report that Clark feels like a conservative choice. The two works are beautiful in places, the music is appropriately jarring but it feels like a place-holder, not a move forward.

Gelabert Azzopardi also offered a double bill: Conquassabit is a frenetic rush that uses a large cloth to great effect in the quest to define time, while Sense Fi is a series of group dances and solos that showcases a company grounded in strong technique.

It is, again, beautiful, but Gelabert really needs to get off the stage. In one scene, he had all the charm of a dad at a party, grooving away while the other dancers leapt around him. Since the choreography noticeably slackened every time he appeared – probably to prevent his gradually fading technique from being too exposed – he is undermining his excellence by continuing to perform.

As an MC in Conquissabit, he had grandeur and gravitas, and his use of patterns within the dances is breath-taking. When the pace races, the drama and destruction of time's influence was palpable.

Each show was polished, precise and perfected. The International Festival is, after all, a guarantee of excellence. It may lack adventure - dance on this scale has had to appeal at a variety of levels to become popular enough to reach the Festival audience - but it entertains and pleases, and reveals how close contemporary and ballet have now become.