Richard Alston Dance Company, Sadler's Wells, London Benois de la Danse, Sadler's Wells, London

Give 'em the razzle dazzle
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The Independent Culture

In a choreographic career that has clocked up 35 years and rising, Richard Alston has been admired for many things, not least his musicality in a field where the essential fit between music and movement is too often spurned. What he's not been noted for is the sexiness of his dances. With the creation of Shimmer, however, the centrepiece of his company's new touring programme, suddenly all that's changed.

Swarovski crystals glitter wickedly from a dim-lit stage as the feathery sighs of Ravel emerge from a piano. For the first tremulous moments as your eyes adjust, the on-stage couple look like the naked prey of some particularly epicurean spider, wrapped in flesh-restraining cobweb and garnished with dewdrop jewels. Buttocks are glimpsed as Jonathan Goddard and Ino Riga twine sleekly round each other, summoning shadowy images of the classical world, of dryad and naiad in mysterious exchanges. More than once the dance makes a nod to Nijinsky's Faun in the profiling of hands and feet, and it occupies that same sphere of sensual languor and tingling nerve-ends. To the supple wash of Ravel's Sonatine and pieces from Miroirs - ravishingly played by Jason Ridgway - is added the sound of an audience collectively holding its breath.

I cannot guess what possessed Alston - normally given to dressing his dancers in sensible frocks and britches - to approach Julien Macdonald, catwalk darling and supplier of spangled nothings to Kylie. But the meeting of talents is combustive. As successive couples appear on stage - a pair in white shimmering like heat-haze, then lovebirds in turquoise who capture the strange melancholy of Ravel's "Oiseaux tristes" - Alston reaches a higher, freer register of poetic invention than he has done in years.

Une barque sur l'ocean - an overlong composition that generations of pianists have struggled to rein in - responds less readily to Alston's touch. To make sense of Ravel's sprawling seascape, he has his seven dancers embody every wave and eddy with a literalness that becomes wearing. Happily, though, he returns to form with a final solo in which lop-sided pliés and a sense of silence and slow time transport us back to the ancient world. Full marks to Martin Lawrance, whose finely nuanced dancing so surely catches that elusive spirit.

Economic realities deny Alston the option of using live music for a whole evening. Even so, I cannot think the taped soundtrack was the sole source of my ho-hum reaction to the two older Alston works on the bill. Brisk Singing, set to wildly unconventional Rameau, is full of lively touches (quivering feet mimicking the violins' trills; drumming heels impatient to be off). But it adds little to our grasp of the music. It's craftsmanlike, no more.

Steve Reich's Overdrive - an airless sequence of electronic piano-pounding - is easier to like. I wonder, though, how long this choreographer can go on repeating his trademark moves: the blown-umbrella jump, the Alston skip, the energised arabesque. It's a winning formula, and it's one Alston's current batch of young dancers are now well schooled in (and so they ought to be - they don't dance anything else). Perhaps Shimmer will break the log jam. I don't expect to see a more entrancing new piece this year.

Ballet galas are usually much of a muchness. You go expecting massed individual artistry, and what you get is a surfeit of tutus and enough warhorses from the rep to set up a stables. However, the gala organised by Benois de la Danse - an annual award based in Russia - to show off some of its prize winners, bucked tradition by offering a programme that barely featured pointe shoes, let alone stiff net skirts.

Benois de la Danse (named after the Ballets Russes designer) gives out gongs not only to dancers, but also to dance creators, hence the plethora of odd-ball pieces in this show. And whereas the dizzying quality of performing talent (chiefly from Russia, but also from America and Europe) came as a reprimand to our Little Britain idea of dance glamour, the general misfire of almost all the new choreography showed either that a) the state of British dance invention must be healthier than we thought, or b) theatrical taste just doesn't travel.

I was initially bemused, then irritated, by Lunchbreak, a supposedly comic solo for a lovelorn office clerk with a blow-up swan in his briefcase (bring back Matthew Bourne - and soon). Clown of God, by the same choreographer, drew a portrait of the mad Nijinsky so luridly beset with cliché that I could hardly watch. Irek Mukhamedov self-authored some shamelessly corny antics with a chair, and later with a phalanx of Royal Ballet students while he stalked the stage wearing Moscow Mafia shades.

But the compensations were phenomenal: the sublime Parisian star Elisabeth Platel in an extract from John Neumeier's Sylvia. The ineffably refined Ulyana Lopatkina as the ultimate Dying Swan (what three minutes of high-class anthropomorphism can do to the human tear ducts!). And equally memorable: a Spectre de la Rose from Vladimir Malakhov so soft, so insinuating, so transcendent of gender and physiology, that I can only think this was how Nijinksy danced it.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Richard Alston: Glasgow Theatre Royal (0141 332 9000), Sat; and touring

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