Last week, Richard Alston Dance Company brought Oxford Playhouse a programme that was all about surprising encounters: tango and contemporary dance; Britten and Purcell; Scarlatti and Andalusia; Indian and Western classicism.

The evening opened with Martin Lawrance’s Tangent, a clever take on tango for four couples, set to Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, which was played at the grand piano on stage by Jason Ridgway. Lawrance uses steps such as picked up foot-crossing walks, sharp changes of direction and occasional close holds to hint at tango, but this contemporary dance piece is not at all like ‘Strictly’, although there is plenty of spectacle. The men claimed the stage with great authority at the very beginning, only to be overshadowed by the women: Elly Braund in red and Oihana Vesga Bujan in blue, Monique Jonas, who showed a lovely quality of movement, and the rhythmic and musical Nancy Nerantzi, who danced a duet with Nicholas Bodych.

Richard Alston’s Chacony lifted us to a higher emotional level through its deep engagement with the music, as ten dancers formed and re-formed patterns on the stage. The work juxtaposes Purcell’s and Britten’s music as formal frameworks that are embodied by the dance, as it moves from order into disorder, and back again. The seemingly miraculous arrangement of the dancers, dissolving and resolving into different formations, sometimes just by changing their directional focus, was particularly moving.

The final work, An Italian in Madrid, brought back pianist Jason Ridgway. It is not a conventional narrative ballet, but it does tell a story about Scarlatti’s move from Naples to Lisbon and the meeting between the Portuguese Princess Maria Barbara (played by Vidya Patel) and the Spanish Prince Fernando (played by Liam Riddick). Alston has a great gift for suggesting ideas through movement, and this is evident in the choreography for the Prince, which evokes a proud Spaniard without slipping into pastiche. Patel is different from the other dancers, drawing energy into herself like a force-field, rather than dissipating it outwards, but as she plays a princess, it is right that her way of moving should differentiate her from her attendants. The theme of cultural encounter lends itself to a virtuoso dance display, rather like a grand pas de deux, as Prince and Princess formally demonstrate their prowess to each other. Riddick danced his solo, which was full of fast turns and sharp detailed footwork, magnificently. Patel’s even lovelier solo fitted admirably with Alston’s vocabulary as she whirled quickly and rhythmically, but the most striking aspect was the way in which she inhabited her character as if the dance were the outward manifestation of her thoughts. When Patel and Riddick danced together, the restraint and dignity of the choreography was extremely beautiful: Alston’s integration of Kathak with his own dance style has worked quite brilliantly.

Maggie Watson

18 May 2017

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