In celebration of its 25th and last season of work, the Richard Alston Dance Company is embarking on an international farewell tour. The kind of endeavour you might normally associate with the break-up of a major band, or with Cher – who is perennially on her last tour, and I think has been saying farewell since at least the beginning of the last century, as is the whim of an eternal being. The scale feels only a bit different for Alston and his dancers. Final Edition: Oxford [1] is a culmination of many lives at work together, expanding the practices of modern, postmodern, and contemporary dance in the United Kingdom.

Because of his eponymous title the Etonian has a claim to canonical status and this tour could have become an overwrought monument to privilege and ego. Instead, what we witnessed in Oxford’s New Theatre on Wednesday night was a homage to a history of dance, branded, and shaped by Alston, advanced by collaborator Martin Lawrance, and most importantly, pulled off with immense style, presence, and love by a company of extraordinary dancers.

Alston’s company is known for a focus on formal features: structure, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, and especially what Alston terms ‘legibility’. The evening began with Red Run from 1998, an emotive and clean introduction to the company, neither thrilling nor self-important. This piece follows the style of modern dance developed by Merce Cunningham closely, with little expressive variation but lots of gorgeous attention to Heiner Goebbels’  powerful score. This served as, either, a great introduction to the tropes of Alston’s work, or a welcome re-acclimatization to a style, for those of us who had given up on modern dance’s ability to surprise us.

Along with Red Run, Mazur and Isthmus both carry the audience through virtuosic explorations of music in space. Or, as Alston might have it, of making music legible through dance.  We watch the bodies on stage sing: Joshua Harriette took the air out of the room with his ability to manipulate sound and time in a quieter section of Mazur, set to a selection of Chopin mazurkas. Nicholas Shikkis’ light and vociferous movement upended the stage space, with each elegant turn, or leg extension, in this same work. In Isthmus Monique Jonas’s presence and power stunned the audience as she moved through complicated phrases, making them appear light, glowing, and effortless.

The last work of the night was Alston’s Voices and Light Footsteps. This cleverly paired off the dancers in successive duet sections, which expanded out into a virtuosic period of unison which ended the show. This new work, exploring the long sighs of Monteverdi’s hand allowed the dancers to explore, in support of one another. Here Jonas is at her most powerful and elegant, in a shimmering gold dress which bends light and time to her will. Jennifer Hayes and Jason Tucker give us a lively embodiment of difficult passages of music, with a great sensitivity for each other; and Ellen Yilma is heartbreaking. Her duet with Harriette positions the two as the emotional pivot in the piece as they balance precariously on one another always threatening to collapse – as if. The oppositional tensions between contact, and separation, balance and fall, discord and resolution were played through with great subtlety by the dancers, who push through increasingly demanding physical tasks. Until they arrive as one breathing unity. Still. Beaming out to us.

This work is set almost in direct opposition to A Far Cry, another new piece choreographed by Matthew Lawrance which came second in the programme. It is both blindingly revisionist and yet so calmly grounded in the work of dance pioneer—and great influence on Alston—Trisha Brown that it feels extraordinarily conversational, delicate, and powerful. Brown’s focus on complex spatial structures, improvisation-based phrases which seem too long or natural to have been learnt or choreographed, repetition, and use of music, are maximalised here. By which I mean the dancers are at their most cool, embodied, and open to the expansive potential for pleasure, and connection in movement. There is a harmony to the chaos of this work. The end of A Far Cry comes after a series of high pace complex choral sections which organically arrive at a stunning resolution, seemingly as if by chance, but which must take extraordinary focus and precision to be pulled off at the pace demanded by the music.

These two new works are both driven by this fantastic company of dancers. Together they tell us something important about how the company wants Oxford to view its legacy. Because, A Far Cry is a reflection on community, with excruciating beauty, a detailed examination of the present feeling in the UK; it pushes the limits of the audience’s ability to take in, and process the information we see on stage. But, by the time we reach the last section of Voices and Light Footsteps we have moved back to social cohesion, unison, clear emotion, delimited sections, a clear musical genre. It is a triumph, because, as an audience we wept twice. At the extraordinary pain of the here and now in A Far Cry, and then with yearning for a unity which was once representable without irony. For a fantasy we should now be well aware can only be constructed through mechanisms like a dance, but which nonetheless come as the result of great self-sacrifice, work, and discipline.

Marcus Bell

31st January 2020


[1] In each city the company will stage different iterations of its history, so these reflections follow from the specific show witnessed on the 22nd of January.