Richard Alston Dance Company opened their show at the New Theatre, Oxford with Martin Lawrance’s energetic and fast paced creation Detour, which was followed by six pieces by Alston himself. Lawrance leaves interpretation to the audience: according to the programme, he named his piece because he started with one idea, which changed as he worked, but he leaves it to the dance to reveal what those ideas were. Performed to a recorded marimba and percussion soundtrack, its zippy pirouettes and sharp split jetés interspersed with leaps into dramatic embraces displayed the company’s virtuosity, while suggesting an underlying theme of conflict.

Richard Alston’s own programme notes offer more clues to the thoughts, images, and circumstances that lie behind his dances. There was a sense of retrospection, even contemplation, in the body of the programme, of which the centrepiece was Quartermark, consisting of four short excerpts from earlier works spanning (nearly) three decades, as well as the two longer works; Proverb (2006) and Brahms Hungarian (2018).

In Fever (2001) Monique Jonas danced alone to Montiverdi madrigals in a lovely small-scale composition that started set within a circle of orange light, which gradually diffused as her movement trajectories extended to right and left beyond its boundaries. The orange light then turned to blue for a solo from Shimmer (2004) danced by Joshua Harriette, set largely on a powerful diagonal from upstage right to downstage left. Against the blue-lit backdrop, Harriette, with his strong lunges with low centre of gravity that resisted the air seemed almost to be dancing underwater; it was as if the sound of the bells in the accompanying music (Ravel’s La Vallée des Cloches) came from a village church that had been submerged by the tide. Next, in Bach Dances (2018), Jennifer Hayes and Ellen Yilma performed two quick, sharp, lyrical solos that were originally created for a French Conservatoire, but not used because the students turned out to be somewhat younger than expected! The fourth excerpt, Signal of a Shake (1999/2000) to music by Handel, was sheer, exuberant dancing by the company, dressed in gorgeous black and gold costumes.

After a planned pause came Proverb, to music by Steve Reich. Alston created the piece for Reich’s seventieth birthday and has now revived it for his own. Alston echoes the music’s mediaeval influences in dance by developing the idea of the craftsmen that built the great cathedrals into a work that embodies artistic and spiritual collaboration. In no sense a literal interpretation of this idea, it nevertheless felt towards the end that the air was thinning as the dancers rose on the music, reaching higher and higher together towards Heaven.

The final work, Brahms Hungarian, both delighted and slightly disappointed me. Jason Ridgeway played Brahms’ Hungarian Dances wonderfully at a grand piano on the stage, and the choreography, which incorporated hints of folk dances and Hungarian claps, manifested the musicality, sense of geometry and space, rhythm, varied dynamics, and elegance that is characteristic of Alston’s work. I just longed for the cast collectively to forsake the traditional, impassive, facial demeanour of the contemporary dancer, which seemed to hold them back from fully communicating the character and excitement of the music. Nevertheless, the audience went wild with pleasure and there was massive applause at the end of this hugely enjoyable evening.

The varied and original programmes offered by this small company, make its work feel particularly precious and ephemeral. It is tremendously sad that Richard Alston Dance Company is to close in 2020: I do hope that they will visit Oxford at least one more time before then.

Maggie Watson

10th February 2019