Richard Alston, Sadler's Wells, London Ballet Black, Linbury Studio, London

With Benjamin Britten's score so brightly sung by a youthful chorus, the dancers struggle to bring much more to the party

Jenny Gilbert
Sunday 04 March 2012 01:00

Nineteen little boys in purple cassocks make an arresting visual backdrop to Richard Alston's latest work, a setting of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, itself a setting of some of the loveliest poetry to have come out of medieval England.

"Pleasure it is to hear iwis the birdes sing" flute the junior members of Canterbury Cathedral Choir, and what pleasure it is with intonation so pure, diction so clean and musical intelligence so pronounced (and this from some who have barely seen their eighth birthday). As ever with Alston, the music comes first, and it is superb.

But how to express this music's mystery? Alston responds confidently to the rousing opener ("Wolcum"), stringing his expanded troupe of 16 dancers across the stage in celebratory scooping lines. It's the same with the closing choral shout of "Deo Gracias!". Sturdy belief calls out jubilant movement, and Alston does that beautifully.

But the incense-dark mysticism of "There is No Rose", with its mono- tone incantations ("res miranda ... paresforma ... gaudeamus"), mesmerising even to the godless, demands a stranger turn of imagination. Other numbers seem to be differentiated by the gender of the dancers, little more.

Earlier, Alston's 20-year-old Roughcut came up shining, buoyed by the cheerful blast of dancers with wind in their heels, but if there was one item you'd like to take home to examine more closely, it was Lie of the Land by Martin Lawrance, a one-time Alston fledgling who has since found his wings. He, too, finds scores that you want to know better (here, a string quartet by Ned Rorem), but comes at them with a densely layered movement vocabulary that suggests hidden stories. It springs surprises, too, with startling falls, flips and daring lifts, rare in barefoot dance.

Lawrance is a busy man these days, and versatile too, turning up at the Linbury the following night to christen Captured, a work on point, and a commission from Ballet Black. If I had to choose, I think I prefer him in ballet mode: faster, sleeker, and more devastating, though some of this must be due to the technical skill of the two couples – and especially streak-of-lightning Cira Robinson – who I kept expecting to murder one another, though Lawrance wouldn't stoop to anything so crass.

Ballet Black is a small miracle of a company. With no state subsidy, other than a bit of hand-holding from Covent Garden, Cassa Pancho's tiny troupe thinks big. This year's offering includes no fewer than four premieres, all of them first-class. The only pity is that there are still so few black and Asian classical dancers working in the UK that the company has to cast largely from America. Ballet Black, by its very existence, should change that.

Hopes were riding high for Storyville, about a fictional ingénue in Louisiana in 1915 who goes from rags to riches to ruin, egged on by the factual dancehall madam, Lulu White. Christopher Hampson delivers a stylish narrative, responding with gusto to a selection of Kurt Weill numbers, sleazy and bracing by turns. But just as original, and as much fun, is Jonathan Watkins's duet Together, Alone – a feast of alien flavours brought to bear on Western classical ingredients, from cumin to lemongrass. Delicious.

Alston: Malvern Theatre (01684 892277) 13 & 14 Mar, and tour. Ballet Black: Linbury (020-7304 4000) to Wed, and tour.

Dance choice

Always political, the work of Lloyd Newson for his company DV8 has become very vocal of late. His new piece, Can We Talk About This? examines censorship: how multi-cultural policy and personal behaviour has been shaped by fear of causing religious offence. Controversy is assured. In the Lyttelton at the National Theatre, Fri to 28 Mar.

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