In the programme, Richard Alston quotes Balanchine’s statement “see the music, hear the dance”, and the music that he invites us to “see” in this triple bill is typically diverse:  Jo Kondo for Buzzing Round the Hunnisuccle; Mozart and Ferruccio Busoni for Unfinished Business, and finally Julia Wolfe for Martin Lawrance’s work Madcap.

I saw this programme twice, once from the Stalls and once from the Circle, and each was a completely different experience.  Seen from above, Alston’s Buzzing Round the Hunnisuccle gains an extra dimension from Zeynep Kepekli’s lighting of the stage floor.  The changes of colour, through blue, red and yellow that reflected the patches of colour on the dancers’ costumes added a feeling of passing time and shifting place.  A pattern of stone work projected onto the floor echoed a passage of architectural structure in the dance.  A single block of colour spread across the stage matched the single chords that brought moments of stillness in the dance.  The view from the Circle revealed that the opening group of four dancers, with one placed to make a right angle was reflected in a recurrent angular arm position used throughout the dance.

The second Alston work, Unfinished Business, was accompanied on stage by the pianist Jason Ridgway.  Following the musical structure (Allegro, Andante, Gigue), and danced by five men and four women, the unequal pairings with an odd-man-out hinted at inconclusive relationships, and Elly Braund and James Pett’s very beautiful duet to the Andante projected an ominously troubled mood.  I particularly liked Liam Riddick’s quick, lyrical movement, the way in which he moved sideways and backwards on clear diagonals at speed, and his subtle timing.  Seen from above, at times the geometry of the movement and the contrapuntal choreography almost made the music visible.

I had most difficulty with Martin Lawrance’s Madcap, on account of the loud brutality of the music, which was reflected in the dance.  Dominated from the start by Nathan Goodman’s outstandingly brooding and threatening character, I found the violence of this very urban work quite disturbing; I just did not want to leave the theatre on that note.  But the audience loved it on both nights, and were clearly swept along by the pace, rhythms, energy and, perhaps, the sheer volume of the music.

This is a company of very fine dancers.  The men’s movement in masculine without being macho, the women’s strong without loss of femininity.  Despite his origins in contemporary dance, Alston creates dances that share some qualities with ballet (the swift beaten jumps, the jetés that fly across the stage, the spiralling pirouettes in attitude), but the lower centre of gravity gives a different focus, and in duets the women often use their weight and strength to support or move the men.

It is exciting to see professional dancers and new choreographic work on this stage:  I hope that Oxford Playhouse will bring Richard Alston Dance Company again, and soon.

Maggie Watson

4 May 2013