Dance: And the band hardly played at all

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIRTY YEARS is a long time to be in the same job, and it must have been tempting for Richard Alston - at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to celebrate the anniversary of his first choreography - to give himself a pat on the back and revisit past triumphs. But no. For his company's four-night run he produced an evening of recent work, all new to London, where he has a large and eager following. Alston fans come to hear music as much as to see dance, thanks to the choreographer's on-going affair with the London Sinfonietta (also having its 30th anniversary, as it happens). Thus many were surprised to see that although musicians had been booked for the night, two-thirds of the programme was danced to a tape.

"Too loud!" heckled one dismayed patron when the first strains of Rameau wafted in for the first piece, Brisk Singing. "I tell you, it's too loud!" he persisted. For me it wasn't, but there was a feeling all round that for once, this most musical of dancemen had let the side down. OK, so funds don't stretch to hiring a baroque orchestra, chorus and soloists. Then set music you can afford to do live. It's a principle worth adhering to (as the Siobhan Davies company does, to stunning effect). You wouldn't expect people to queue up to see dancers on video. So why the double standards? Keep it all live.

That said, Alston's response to the helium-buoyed rhythms of Rameau's Les Boreades of 1764 is all joy. This is territory famously explored by Mark Morris, and you can spot the American's influence here and there: the casual ambulations, the skipping steps, the broad grins breaking out on dancers' faces as they join hands in country-dance lines. At one point, they suddenly lie down on their backs and drum their heels, like toddlers in an overflow of high spirits. But the choreography settles on the more familiar airborne shapes of Alston's signature style: limbs flung high and wide in lunging, soaring, space-eating dance. It looked gorgeous on the huge curtainless platform of the QEH. Does anyone ever stop to wonder how dance as expansive as this manages to stretch or shrink to fit the wildly dissimilar stages encountered on a tour? One week Stevenage, the next the South Bank. I take my hat off to this handsome company. They've never looked better.

It was the British premiere for Red Run, commissioned by the 1998 Holland Dance Festival, along with a new score by Heiner Goebbels (the one piece played live on stage at the QEH). This is edgy, moody stuff, with electric guitar and boogying piano struggling to break free of a dour, squeaky- gate spectrum of sound. Squeaky-gate wins out, but not before the jazz element has imposed some interesting glottal stops on Alston's fluid phrasing.

There's a beautiful central duet for two men (the first bit of homoerotic tenderness I recall seeing in Alston's work) in which their prone bodies mirror and overlap each other's movements in an elegant and intimate exchange. But eventually the dance sinks into the music's anxious gloom.

In his 1994 piece Rumours, Visions, Alston attempts to portray the turbulent life of the teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud, doing within his vocabulary what Frederic Ashton did 50 years ago with ballet. Both use Britten's song settings of the poems, but to very different effect. "Rimbaud was not afraid of the most penetrating and excruciating metaphor," wrote the ballet man. But I'd say Richard Alston is afraid. The poems were written when Rimbaud was 17 and consumed by a no holds barred love affair with the poet Verlaine, who later tried to shoot him. But for all the contrasts of exuberance and inertia in Alston's piece, it's too pure and lovely for this savage theme. In one poem, Rimbaud claims he holds the key to life's "parade sauvage". I can't help thinking Alston lost it in this.

Over at The Place, Yolande Snaith was dabbling in much more dubious practices. Her latest theatre-dance piece, Blind Faith, opens on an incense-fogged set which contains just one large red carpet, and a gigantic curvy steel table which serves as sacrificial altar, a bed for an orgy, and finally, for Michelangelo's Last Supper. On this evidence, Snaith's imagination is rather more colourful than her choreography, which largely amounts to a lot of racing about and grappling with flesh (quite fun if it takes your fancy). High priestess Snaith and four male attendants also indulge intermittently in palsied shapes followed by absolute stillness, as if they'd suddenly died on stage. The theatrical thrust of it all relies heavily on Graeme Miller's spooky, medieval-ish score, and clever uplighting from beams set within the metal table, which have an almost alchemical effect when Snaith performs rituals with a bowl of red liquid. All this seems more fascinating in the telling than it was at the time. It certainly falls on the wacky side of weird.

Yolande Snaith: Edinburgh Traverse (0131 228 1404), 27 Mar; Cambridge Junction (01223 511 511), 31 Mar; then touring.

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