DANCE / Throwing everything up in the air: So what's all this then? Richard Alston is back at the company he walked out on 21 years ago? Yes, says Judith Mackrell, and no

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Twenty-one years ago, a very young and very mutinous Richard Alston walked out on a golden future with Britain's major new dance company, London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Despite all the latter's offers of money and work, Alston wasn't interested in choreographing for the mainstream audience that LCDT were trying to attract. Rather he saw himself as one of God's chosen few, going out into the wilderness to devote himself to the radical and rigorous cause of New Dance.

Now, though, he's back in the fold, having just been appointed Director of a company that's to be reconstructed out of the old LCDT. For all sorts of reasons the reunion is apt. Over the last decades he and the company have separately ranked as two of the biggest success stories of British modern dance. Both have also suffered a recent fall from grace amidst unusual acrimony and debate. And if the plans for the new company work out, they could be on the verge of a big joint comeback.

Alston always considers and measures his words - like the taut and lucid phrases of his choreography, his statements are never gratuitous or loose. So when he says that he's 'deeply contented' about the appointment, you know that he's an extraordinarily happy man. The rest of his profession, however, is divided about the idea of disbanding LCDT to create a new company. Some see it as the perfect solution to the malaise that's been sapping LCDT over the last few years, others regard it as an irresponsible destruction of a great dance tradition.

The root problem with the old LCDT was that, as a large repertory company, it was out of synch with the changing climate of modern dance. Over the last six or seven years the sharp and popular edge of dance has shifted to the smaller independent groups who tend to work exclusively with one choreographer. Few of these choreographers seem interested in making saleable works for other rep companies and even fewer are interested in running those big institutions. The public, too, are less attracted by mixed bills of dance. As a result LCDT has been losing audiences, it has been unable to find a replacement for its original and inspirational artistic director Robert Cohan, and it has failed to acquire the kind of challenging and top-class work that would keep its image alive.

The Place Company, as the new ensemble will be called, has been tailored in response to these issues. It will have a less costly 12 dancers rather than 16, and it will not attempt to maintain a mixed repertoire. For six months of the year it will present work by Richard Alston, and for another three months the dancers will work with other choreographers. These will be taken from the four artistic associates who will be appointed to the company and its attached school.

The company's flexibility will allow it to expand and contract for different projects. It won't automatically tour to the large regional theatres that LCDT has recently found so hard to fill, but will liaise with different venues to suit specific programmes. It will also become more intimately involved with the broad range of activities that go on at its home base, the Place (soon to become the new National Centre for Contemporary Dance and also to run under Alston's direction). The company will open its classes to other professional dancers, it will share rehearsal space with four smaller independent groups, and it will perform more frequently at the Place Theatre - itself to become an exclusively dance venue with an additional new performance studio.

The whole building should end up humming with dance - a prospect that thrills Alston. 'There's already a wonderfully strong feeling in that building - just being in it you feel in touch with the whole dance community.' Peter Sarah, chief executive of the Contemporary Dance Trust, says that the building is unanimously behind Alston. 'He's perhaps the only person who could bring all this together - he's a very important choreographer, a great teacher and very wise and generous adviser.' Alston's background is impeccable. He knows about small dance groups, having set up Britain's first independent dance company in the early Seventies. He also understands big institutions, having run Rambert Dance Company for several years.

But he has his critics, too. Though Rambert went through a golden age in the Eighties - garnering awards, attracting some of the biggest names in music, painting and dance - the Nineties saw its audiences in retreat. A younger public turned away from Alston's preference for abstract and sophisticated technical dance towards the gut energy of Eurocrash. The strains of running a large company also told on the quality of Alston's own work. And he was considered by some to be artistically if not personally pigheaded. Rambert's board decided that Alston no longer figured in its plans for the company's future, and without any warning he was given the sack.

Alston admits he was so traumatised by the severance that he went into hiding for a month - 'I was so hurt by the way they behaved and I didn't know who I could trust.' But he was offered some teaching at the London Contemporary Dance School, based at the Place, where his wounds were healed. He now sees that he was overly autocratic at Rambert, 'interfering with other people because I cared so much about the company'. This time he fully intends 'letting people get on with their own jobs' and 'getting back in touch with movement in the studio'. His dance tastes are still decided ones - but that's no longer an issue since he won't be responsible for choosing and maintaining a repertoire. He's very positive about the wide variety of choreography that will be happening at the Place - 'I'm not possessive, we don't all have to like each other's work, we just have to be honest about sharing the resources and the space.' Aware of his critics, he says that 'the enormous support I'm getting means I can build up my self-confidence and afford to be generous. We just have to quieten them down by being so good.'

What he does find 'very sad and painful' is the fate of the dancers - who have carried the company for years and now feel discarded and betrayed. Alston says they are currently 'all giving each other a breathing space. The dancers know I like them, we just have to see who wants to join the new company and who doesn't' He's convinced, though, that the new plans are true to the spirit of the old LCDT and its founder, the late Robin Howard. 'Robin himself had the idea that it would be important to throw everything up in the air, to retract in order to grow again.'

In the beginning LCDT was a company with a mission - it was committed to converting Britain to modern dance and to developing dancers and choreographers. Now, as the Place Company, it has another chance to galvanise a wave of new dance power. Alston himself, one of the company's first-born talents, admits with a self-conscious nod to the strength of his own sentiment that 'Yes, it feels as if I've come back to my roots'.

(Photograph omitted)