Richard Alston Dance Company returned to Oxford this week for one evening at the New Theatre. The programme opened with Martin Lawrance’s Cut and Run, to music by Michael Gordon and Damian LeGassick for ten dancers dressed in ‘urban wear’ with metallic decoration that glinted in the dim light. Starting and stopping, dodging and colliding, they broke out of the purple patch of illumination that seemed at first to confine them, and spread across the darkened stage. An interval of silence, then the lights changed to orange, adding a fresh sense of urgency to their frantic race, until the work concluded, with the dancers once more bathed in a purple glow.

The second work, Carnaval by Richard Alston, was first danced at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, and is a completely new interpretation of the Robert Schumann’s glorious music, which was previously used by Fokine. Set at a formal dance, the storyline is a psychological narrative, as the two aspects of Schumann’s personality (danced by Liam Riddick and Nicholas Bodych) vie for ascendancy and interact with Clara (danced by Elly Braund). The presence of a grand piano and pianist Faith Leadbetter on stage with the dancers may reflect Alston’s preoccupation with the connection between music and movement. The work was made for the late David Vaughan, Frederick Ashton’s biographer, and the floor patterns, intricate linking steps, and use of épaulement all nod towards Ashton, whose influence Alston acknowledges in the programme. I enjoyed this dance, but would have been so glad to see the dancers draw a clearer distinction between the two aspects of Schumann’s character, to draw out the inner conflicts and subsequent resolution and also develop the relationship with Clara. I felt that the choreography, in its response to the ideas expressed in the music, offered opportunities for a less detached portrayal of human emotion through dance, and even a break with the contemporary dance convention of hardly using any facial expression. Perhaps this will change when the company has had more opportunities to perform the piece.

The evening concluded with Alston’s Gypsy Mixture, an exhilarating series of dances linked by a loose narrative thread that suggests the transition of a people from the village, through the trauma of migration to assimilation in a new society. Liam Riddick, just this week announced winner of the award for best male dancer at the National Dance Awards, and Ihsaan de Banya both delivered virtuoso performances (it must be wonderful to be a male dancer in this company: there are such opportunities!), but much my favourite dance (indeed the highlight of the evening) was the duet between Nicholas Bodych and Jennifer Hayes in which they moved their arms like rippling ribbons, and mirrored or followed each other, connected even when apart, or jumped simultaneously from two feet to two feet, perfectly synchronised in an embodiment of togetherness. This work suited the company well, showing their energy, rhythm, precision and sheer zest for dance to great advantage. I hope that they will come to Oxford again soon.

Maggie Watson

22 February 2018