Richard Alston Dance Company / London Sinfonietta QEH, London
Click to follow
The South Bank Centre's Harrison Birtwistle retrospective bowed out at the weekend with a programme of new choreography by Richard Alston to three works by Birtwistle played on stage by the London Sinfonietta.

Few British choreographers are as naturally qualified as Alston to tackle the resilient anomalousness of Birtwistle's musical terrain yet, too often, Alston seems to hover rather timidly on the edges of that terrain. And although there's clearly some deep compatibility between Birtwistle's interest in "narratives which are not linear" and Alston's similarly non- linear approach to dance, it's not always evident or mutually beneficial.

The net effect is of Alston's and Birtwistle's individual theatricality operating simultaneously but rarely fusing. Typically, Alston runs into problems when dealing with the most obviously dancey score of the evening; the brand new Bach Measures. For this eight-part work based on Bach's Chorale Preludes, Alston employs all nine of his dancers and a couple of gymnasium benches. It begins promisingly with some deft and attractive group formations followed by a male trio characterised by keen, easy leaps and weighty lunges, but then Alston abandons his initial rigorousness for a job lot of rather bland modern dance movements.

Next to the evening's other works - Nenia: The Death of Orpheus to which Alston has created Orpheus Singing and Dreaming, and Secret Theatre - Bach Measures could be described as easy listening and it doesn't challenge Alston in the way that the vibrant and perplexing Secret Theatre does. In the case of the latter, his decision to provide interludes of dance to a score that threatens to overwhelm anything that ventures alongside it, seems based less on timidity than on real insight into the music's complex refulgence. Much of the choreography is as stark as the music is florid. But it, too, periodically verges on chaos - albeit a hidden, psychological chaos. Dancers splice their way across the darkness; contact is fraught, curious and rivetingly unprofitable. At the end, the group congregate around a woman frozen on the floor in the shape of a cross. Her position, and the stillness of those around her, supply the work with its final frame of mystery and anticipation.

In Orpheus Singing and Dreaming, Alston thrusts the company's most senior dancer, Darshan Singh Bhuller, into the title role and casts one of his most recent recruits, Samantha Smith, as Euridice. The soprano Nicole Tibbels sings both parts and adopts speech-song for the passages of narration. While Bhuller's descent to the underworld is appropriately tortuous, the poignancy and anguish of his and Euridice's plight is weakened by choreographic sobriety. Not until Orpheus rolls over, bloodied and dying, does the work resume its initial pithiness. Now decapitated, his body locked in a rictus jerk under billowing blue fabric, Orpheus lets out a silent scream. It's a closing image that is satisfyingly horrific but far less powerful than the quietly cryptic ending of Secret Theatre.

n 'Bach Measures', 'Lachrymae' and 'Secret Theatre' will be performed at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, on 11 May at 7.30pm. (Booking: 01728 453543)