DANCE / Richard Alston bounces back

GOOD choreographers cannot afford to be idle - their country needs them. When, two years ago, Rambert Dance Company decided that director Richard Alston's face didn't fit any more, he didn't languish for too long. What Rambert had wanted was up-front, crowd-pulling spectacle - something to compete with the major ballet companies. Alston was interested in making dance for dance's sake. The irony of the new Richard Alston Dance Company, which made its London debut on Wednesday, is that, in its way, it looks set to meet both criteria. Quality will fill houses, willy nilly.

Eight of the nine dancers are from London Contemporary Dance Theatre, disbanded last year. And they make a fine-looking team - the women elfin-pert and pretty, the men dead ringers for a Haagen-Dazs commercial. This may seem irrelevant, but uniform good looks are not a given in modern dance. These dancers mesmerise us, and apparently each other, with their loveliness. And Alston plays on this. At least two of the four new works presented focus on the couple, which, for Alston, is resolutely heterosexual. On stage, that's something of a rarity these days.

In Shadow Realm, set to a shivery score by Simon Holt (played beautifully on stage by cello, harp and clarinet), the relationship is out of kilter. The woman clings, he cannot shake her off. Yet Leesa Phillips and Henri Oguike are not permanently at war: they engage, sensuously intertwine, and shadow each other's movements only inches apart, the phrasing coming in great, long, easeful breaths - a joy to behold. Yet by subtle means Alston lets us know that things are not right. The man needs his own space; she won't concede; a clarinet shriek propels her onto his broad back, clinging like some wizened homunculus. Yet they love each other still. Life is full of grey areas, and Alston has found a way of delivering them, brightly lit, to our gaze.

As much concerned with the music as with telling stories, Alston chooses and balances scores with care. Movements from Petrushka uses Stravinsky's sparkling piano transcription rather than the orchestral version, and avoids plot-detail to focus on the feelings of Fokine's original. The company are the villagers, hallooing and light-footing their way through the Russian Dance and carnival, taunting the outsider with their easy merriment; Darshan Singh Bhuller makes a darkly powerful Petrushka, a crouching ball of anguish that explodes like a nail-bomb into spiky, leaping shapes. With his sultry sexuality it is not fanciful to imagine Bhuller as a latter-day Nijinsky. He is certainly the company's hottest property.

While Alston seems at home with suffering (Lachrymae, set to Britten's haunting variations on the Dowland song, was a thing of truth and beauty) he also knows how to entertain. Something in the City bubbles along to the systems groove of the band Man Jumping, marrying balletic arabesques with a lop-sided disco hop to joyful, if not intentionally humorous, effect. Richard Alston is back, and he's back for good.

- The Place, WC1, 071-387 0031, until Sat; RNCM Manchester, 061-273 4504, 8-10 December; and touring.

(Photograph omitted)

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