As an exercise in bathos, Richard Alston Dance Company's mixed bill has few peers. But for vibrancy, progression and theatricality, you'd do better to watch the musicians than the dancers themselves. By Louise Levene

Dance Richard Alston Dance Company, QEH, London
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The Independent Culture
The trick with mixed programmes is to get the pieces in the right order so that the excitement (if any) builds towards a climax, sending the audience out into the night feeling that its intellect and its emotions have been worked over by a professional.

Thursday evening's performance by Richard Alston Dance Company seems to have cast its three elements in reverse order, beginning with a world premiere performed to live percussion and ending with an earlier work danced to a tape. The whole set-up seemed to have been arranged so that the musicians could go home early. But what musicians they were.

Okho, the opening piece, was accompanied by three on-stage percussionists. During the first half, the men tap out the complex monotony of Iannis Xenakis's African rhythms, the thumps finally diminishing to a whisper with just the fingernails tickling the skins. The dance, though seamlessly crafted and performed with a silky muscularity, seemed a rather arid and academic response to primal rhythms. However, things livened up considerably when Richard Benjafield installed himself behind a massive arrangement of djembes, snares and steel drums. Four sticks in hand, his assault on his kit is a partly improvised sequence of startlingly aggressive thumps and taps. The movements of this bearded figure in black, his blond hair flying about, the light glinting madly off his spectacles, had more life and interest that those arranged by Alston.

Benjafield's energetic performance earned him whoops of approval from the audience but, to be frank, a policeman conducting traffic would have got wolf whistles from this lot. Their propensity to fits of the giggles was no help in the next piece, Orpheus Singing and Dreaming, performed to Birtwistle's 1970 Nenia: the Death of Orpheus. They found a lot of the crouching, agonising movements (think constipated cellist and you're about there) riotously funny, which was a little off-putting.

The story of Orpheus (Virgil's version via the libretto of Peter Zinovieff) is half spoken, half sung by the soprano Nicole Tibbels, who spits out the words one at a time. Birtwistle's intriguing composition is so powerful that, despite the invariably absorbing presence of Darshan Singh Bhuller's Orpheus, you would be happy enough experiencing this particular piece on the radio. Having taken the decision to drag the musicians from the pit and park them behind the dancers you really have to go some to upstage Roger Heaton and friends.

The work concludes when a long blue sheet is pulled downstage enshrouding Singh Bhuller until only his head is visible. This seems a lot of trouble to go to as at no point does the movement succeed in suggesting that Orpheus's disembodied head is floating off downriver calling for his lost Eurydice.

The evening ended ("concludes" would suggest that the three pieces constituted some sort of progression) with Beyond Measure. Nine dancers enacted a kind of Congregationalist meeting using a pair of Martha Graham's old benches and a tape of Bach's Chorales and Chorale Preludes. The movement here, as throughout the evening, was clean and sharp: the whole show has a polite, sexless, almost wilfully untheatrical air. I think that this flatness could have been disguised by the simple measure of putting the drummers on last and letting the audience leave the building with pulses racing to African rhythms. Alston, in running his works in reverse order, seemed determined to protect us from such an irrational response. Don't excite yourself.

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