Lucinda Childs, Barbican Theatre, London
Richard Alston, Robin Howard Dance Theatre, London

Where are those lovely ghosts of 1979? They're behind you...

Of all the sea-change moments in the history of dance, one of the least predictable was New York minimalism in the 1970s, a back-to-basics campaign if ever there was.

It was the moment when a hip new breed of dancer, clad in jeans and sneakers, said goodbye to glamour and gymnastics and hello to heightened ordinariness – a lovelier thing than it sounds.

A hop, skip and a small sideways jump. That's roughly the sum of the material in Lucinda Childs' 1979 Dance, a glowing, 60-minute ellipsis of stage patterning whose cumulative effect is about as heady an experience as it's been legal to have in the past 32 years. All credit to Dance Umbrella, whose mission this year seems to have been to introduce the dance of three decades ago to the White Cube generation. It's a remarkably good fit.

Childs, then 39 and a glacial beauty of a dancer, was canny in her choice of collaborators: Philip Glass for the music and the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt for the film that provides both the work's stage design and a now slightly ghostly overlay of time-lapse. In his film, we see the 1979 forbears of Childs' current dancers perform the identical steps in identical white clothes, sometimes looming over them as giant phantoms, sometimes swooping through the flesh-and-blood figures like ectoplasm through walls.

For me, Glass's music would be intolerable without its visual counterpart. Squibs of electronically treated soprano repeat and repeat at high volume, tantalising the ear with syllables that approximate words, enervating the senses with relentless, tootling arpeggios, too airless to have been generated by human effort. This is music to crash your car to.

Equilibrium is restored by the movement. Although the motifs repeat just as often – the same upward arm gesture, the same tilting swing of the leg – the sameness is achieved by stamina and technique. Without puffing or sweating, with the same bright little bounce and fastidious placement of the foot, with the blithe and steady focus of the long-distance runner who is entirely in the zone, the effect is of angels dancing. Angels in white jeans and tennis shoes.

When a great yelp went up from the Barbican audience at the abrupt end of the first of three sections (precisely 20 minutes in: everything is precise in Childs' world), it was not only a yelp of blessed release. It was also a yelp of something like ecstasy.

The British dance scene in the late 1960s and 1970s looked very different, having had no equivalent of America's Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham. Instead, it had the new, everything-to-play for London Contemporary Dance School, whose first intake included an unlikely, gangly ex-Etonian, Richard Alston.

The remarkable fact that, four decades on, Alston is still productive as a choreographer has been celebrated before. But it was appropriate that Dance Umbrella should give him a nod in this history-conscious season. A mixed programme that went under the heading Alston at Home (referring both to its relaxed format and to the home base of Alston's company for the past 17 years), brought his earliest work into contact with his latest – not entirely to flattering effect, which is to say that the uncluttered grace of, say, Nowhere Slowly (1970), with its fluent meshing of yoga stretches with a kind of stripped-down classicism, danced in silence, has more appeal to me than the intensely worked new Unfinished Business.

Alston was never a rebel, but there is something arresting about the even earlier Still Moving Still (of 1969), that sees a girl spin dreamily on the spot while balancing a long silver pole across her collar-bone. More dynamically, the group romp Rainbow Bandit (1977), mimics its spoken-word score with bounding or stuttering steps to joyous effect.

By contrast the new work, set to an early Mozart sonata played on stage and with ineffable poise by Jason Ridgway, seemed misconceived in its strenuous scamperings and complicated partnering, producing thuds and heavy breathing entirely out of line with Mozart's restraint. While I don't deny that Alston is keenly musical, sometimes the best music is the inner music made by dance to no sound at all.

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert gets with the 'hood in Some Like it Hip Hop

Dance Choice

Snowflakes already? Surely not. But the Christmas ballets are already setting out on tour. First off the blocks is Northern Ballet's Nutcracker, visiting Aylesbury's Waterside (Tue to Sun), then in Canterbury, Bradford, Newcastle and Manchester, all this side of December. Traditional in style, the production benefits from the company's own fine orchestra.

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