Richard Alston, Liverpool Playhouse

Happy birthday to you - have you done something new?
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The Independent Culture

Richard Alston CBE made his first dance in 1968, a hippie old-Etonian who went on to form Strider, Britain's first independent dance company. In the mid-Seventies he hung out with Merce Cunningham in New York. The Eighties were the Rambert years. In the Nineties he launched his own-name label, and it's hard to get very excited about the news that this current vehicle is now 10 years old. New dances have been pouring out of Richard Alston for half a lifetime.

Richard Alston CBE made his first dance in 1968, a hippie old-Etonian who went on to form Strider, Britain's first independent dance company. In the mid-Seventies he hung out with Merce Cunningham in New York. The Eighties were the Rambert years. In the Nineties he launched his own-name label, and it's hard to get very excited about the news that this current vehicle is now 10 years old. New dances have been pouring out of Richard Alston for half a lifetime.

The one good thing about anniversaries is that the onus is on the upbeat. Alston is fondest of music with a dying fall, but any round-number birthday calls for a spot of fizz, and the ebullient last half-hour is the saving of this touring programme. Gypsy Mixture (pictured) is a set of wildly fast, limb-flung dances set to DJ re-mixes of traditional Balkan music: raucous, eccentric and gloriously rough. Great clumping techno beats launch the entire company of 10 into frenziedly paced group stomps peppered with star jumps and scampering runs. Squawks of Macedonian trumpet and Arab-inflected clarinet prompt electric-eel solos from Dam Van Huynh and Jonathan Goddard. The eye is assaulted by colour: an orange wall, magenta floor and clashing print fabrics. This is Alston pushing 11 on the proverbial dial, as close as he gets to abandon.

But wild as it is, Alston still cares passionately about placement and finish, and it's this formal constraint, the ultimate lack of spontaneity, the very artifice of the thing, that sets up the tensions which kept me interested. Too bad his other pieces lacked that charge.

I can't think what persuaded Alston to revive the pallid Monteverdi sequence he made in 2001. The title is Fever, but for me this is the kind of fever that leaves you flat on your back with a headache. Every musical phrase is a decrescendo, an ebbing of energy that ought to prompt great arcs of lush feeling from the dance phrasing but instead looks flat and polite. This is prodigiously beautiful music, and Alston's contribution doesn't add anything.

Fever also queers the pitch of the new work, Such Longing. But in this case the yearnings are Chopin's and the music is played live (and very finely by Jason Ridgway at an onstage piano), which instantly lifts the enterprise to a higher plane. Alston has always had an instinct for soft and secret places - a Brahms piece, inspired by bereavement, ranks among his best - and here it's the homesickness in Chopin that comes through, most strongly in the flanking solos for the hyper-subtle Martin Lawrance, Alston's longest-serving performer and conduit for his truest feeling. Now and again, flashes of dance temperament break through the general droop, but again the music leads and the movement feels obedient and secondary. In fairness, its fine detail will tell better in more intimate spaces than Sadler's Wells.

The same Martin Lawrance turns choreographer in Charge, a full-company work he set to Steve Reich's "Electric Guitar Phase", a sequence of duelling riffs whose out-of-synch pulses nudge maddeningly against one another. Lawrance catches the electrical imagery in a tightly woven texture of yanking, choppy moves, feet intriguingly picked out with a thin red laser. The Ballet Boyz-style body mechanics make for a nice stylistic break with the rest. But is this a signature troupe or a repertory company? Alston can't have it both ways.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Liverpool Playhouse (0151 709 4776), Fri-Sat; Norwich Theatre Royal (01603 630000), 10-11 March; tour continues

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