My abiding memory of the old Place Theatre is the loos. Damp, subterranean, and permanently swathed in steam, as the ancient radiators were in constant use drying student dancers' towels. The fact that London's premier contemporary dance venue was visibly shared by the London Contemporary Dance School was part of its shabby charm. For it was here in 1969 that Robin Howard, a champion of Martha Graham, set up the school to introduce "modern dance" to Britain.
After a £7m makeover, the steaming towels are gone. The foyer and bar (no longer doubling as a scruffy rehearsal studio) are vistas of matt white and downlighters. The former drill hall of the Artists Rifles Volunteer Regiment now boasts six state-of-the-art studios as well as a library and 300-seat theatre. The latter, renamed the Robin Howard Dance Theatre, is the least altered feature of The Place. Upholstery is a welcome change from the old bum-numbing plastic seating. But it's still that same no-frills black box, with the same atmosphere of being a place where anything can happen.
That intimacy served Richard Alston well as his company christened the boards with a programme of own-label work. A revival of Lachrymae, set to Britten's melancholy variations on a Dowland song, projected more strongly than it did last year in the vastness of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, though to my mind the choreography – a series of mordant duets for three couples – never quite rises to the pitch of the music's searing anguish.
Strange Company, a new work, shows more dramatic depth and substance, using Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze to articulate the relationship between Clara Wieck (the composer's love) and the twin extremes of Schumann's personality, characterised by fiery Florestan and Eusebius, the dreamy introvert. Patricia Hines as Clara achieves a touching ambiguousness, too, as she repeatedly tries and fails to connect with these wayward forces. Jason Piper's Florestan is devilish in his firecracker fury, inspiring Alston to some of his most arresting dance-writing in years. I was less sure about the role of the chorus of Schumann's friends, whose balletic semaphore seems to add little beyond a formal frame for the trio. But this is a work I shall relish seeing a second time. And with luck it will retain the services of pianist Jason Ridgway, whose robust and searching playing adds immeasurably to the experience.
Was it the comparative remoteness of recorded Handel that made Water Music miss the mark? Alston particularly chose Jordi Savall's unusually fast recording, which scuds through the minuets at a pace that engenders at times a most unregal hysteria. The 10 dancers are a puddle of sweat long before the end, despite their unflattering summery getups. (Cheesecloth shorts? Make a note: never again.) Granted, the piece was made in celebratory mode expressly for this occasion. But it misses opportunities for rhythmic and technical – as well as sartorial – subtlety, and in its gritted determination to go flat out, ends up just a little bit flat.
Alston is pretty much unique in British contemporary dance for his adherence to the old-fashioned principle of welding steps to music, particularly classical music. So it was instructive to be reminded how far he has travelled. Soda Lake, made 20 years ago when it was danced by a young Michael Clark, has no music at all. It relies for its setting on Nigel Hall's spare 1968 sculpture inspired by the emptiness of the Mojave desert. The hardware is in itself prosaic – a telegraph pole and a basketball net. But the emotional intensity generated by Alston's lone dancing figure (now the rangy Amanda Weaver, very sleek and fine), in a composition that relates intently to these structures, seizes you by the throat. With its simple, spacious shapes and frequent pauses for contemplation, Soda Lake's minimalism still speaks with a cool beauty and nobility. Richard Alston now focuses on making music, gesture and pattern connect as a single entity. But once he explored the echoing music of silence.
Derngate, Northampton (01604 624811), Tuesday and Wednesday; Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333), 2 & 3 November; and touringReuse content