The Richard Alston Dance Company brings a triple bill to the Oxford Playhouse that shows the typical musicality of its founder’s work. The diversity of the evening’s composers prompts a corresponding diversity in the dance, seen in the opening two pieces, Alston’s own, and the third, that of his associate Martin Lawrance.

Buzzing Round the Hunnisuccle is set to three works by contemporary composer Jo Kondo. There is an austerity, an unemotional quality in them that the dance matches very well. The dancers’ bodies form one shape after another, sculptural, athletic seeming poses with arms widely extended. The isolation of the shapes created by the dancers, one pose after another without much connection, suits very well the atonal, often electronic music, where individual notes are picked out of the air, their tone colour becoming obvious. Perhaps a little is lost when interactions between the dancers become more human. When couples emerge, or we see what might be a brief confrontation between two male dancers, some coolness that is the strength of the work seems lost. Simple blue, orange and white costumes contribute to the sense of abstraction, as does the bright, even lighting of the first and last sections.

Unfinished Business, Alston’s response to Mozart K533 and Federico Busoni’s Giga Bolero e Variazione, was very much the work of the same choreographer. The dancers form shapes with a similar coolness, though with more fluidity, and a much more flowing sense of line. The abstraction of the first movement, a fast movement, gives way in the second, slow movement to a more emotive quality and an even greater lyricism. We are presented with a very affecting pas-de-deux, beginning with a female dancer lying at the feet of a man, arm stretched along the ground. Thus little fragments suggestive of narratives appear. Even more than elsewhere in this bill, the dance becomes a protrusion of the music into the visual. Gestures, sweeps of the hand that follow exactly a musical phrase in this movement, occasionally make the dancer seem actually to be being conducted by it.

Madcap by Martin Lawrance was quite a change, the dance being a realisation of the fierce, rocky insistence of Julia Wolfe’s score for Bang on a Can All-Stars. It began with dancer Nathan Goodman sprawled spider-like at the back of the stage, his limbs moving in jerks coinciding with or counterpointing the music’s spasms at the piece’s start. From this we come to lines and menacing groups of dancers, always maintaining an urban forcefulness in their movement. The bright, uncoloured light in patches on the stage that leaves other patches quite dark, and the costumes that come closer to contemporary dress than those of tonight’s other works give Madcap an urban feeling, almost an urban setting, making it the least purely abstract. The energy of the work was always however contained by the formality of the company’s style and Alston’s own influence, never reaching the rhythmical abandon of street-dance.

These three pieces were a pleasure to watch. The visit from this company was an exceptional opportunity to see dance of this sort in Oxford.

Thomas Stell

29th May 2013