Richard Alston Dance Company: Quartermark; BalletBoyz: Them/Us – review

When Richard Alston Dance Company closes its doors in 2020, the dance world is certain to feel its absence. Alston is one of the lions of British contemporary dance, with a 50-year career that has included prolific tenures at the helm of Ballet Rambert and his own RADC, along with a shining new knighthood. His company’s closure has been prompted by a lack of Arts Council funding, and follows a 25-year residence at the Place; Alston joined the first generation of students at the London Contemporary Dance School in 1968.

Even in his end days, however, this lion continues to roar. Alston’s newest work, Brahms Hungarian, exemplifies the shrewd, elegant musicality that has captivated audiences over the years, stitching bounds and pivots into the swerving notes of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (played live at this London premiere by pianist Jason Ridgway).

It’s a delightful dance of genres: there’s courtly waltzing, balletic jetés, lashings of folksy footwork. RADC’s nine-strong ensemble are a robust, gliding pack, ever vigilant of the score’s fitful cadences. Monique Jonas sashays with particular vim, swivelling her frame as she traces pert leg circles, known in the trade as rond de jambes.

This programme – the company’s penultimate before ceasing operations – also includes the London debut of Detour, from Alston protege Martin Lawrance, a quicksilver caper to tinkling marimba tones. In twos and threes the dancers dart around the stage, their limbs streaking like watercolour brushstrokes. The choreography glistens with swinging lifts and curved torsos, its catapulting intensity punctuated with moments of quiet.

Joining these new works are resurrections from RADC’s back catalogue, including lively extracts from 2000’s The Signal of a Shake and 2004’s Shimmer. Joshua Harriette brings full-bodied vigour to the latter, striking the imperious silhouette of an Etruscan sculpture. I’m less convinced by the flinging extensions of Bach Dances (2018), which are too fleet to fully unfurl.

Proverb (2006) rounds things off, a spare, meditative number set to an elegiac choral arrangement by Steve Reich. Here, sharp angles splinter the dancers’ lines as they arrange and rearrange their bodies in geometric tableaux. There’s a vibrant, visceral reciprocity between song and dance, the cast diving into Reich’s polyphonic textures and extracting the stillness lodged between its melodies. This graceful exchange epitomises Alston’s artistry, which has always relished nuanced alliances of music and motion. Them, one half of a new programme from BalletBoyz, reaches for similar heights of symbiosis, its choreography shaped in tandem with an original score from Charlotte Harding. The six men of the troupe collaborated on the creation themselves – a first for this all-male outfit, founded in 2000 by Royal Ballet alumni Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.

Them by BalletBoyz at Sadler’s Wells. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The results are mixed. Buoyant phrases thrive in concert with Harding’s wily score, which roves from suspenseful to playful to sultry; Benjamin Knapper inhabits these shifts with particular flair, cranking up the wit in a bold, body-pumping solo. But ultimately there are too many cooks in this kitchen. Lyrical reaches clash with diligent poses and frisky gymnastic tumbles around a 4-metre metal frame. It’s a muddle of styles and rhythms, with no through-line to justify their vicinity.

There’s far more clarity in Us, from ballet virtuoso Christopher Wheeldon, who’s reworked a romantic duet from 2017 into an electric ensemble piece scored by Keaton Henson. The dancing starts off antsy, exigent, crackling with nervous energy. Fingertips twitching, the pack bounces on the balls of their feet, spoiling for a fight. A tussle does indeed erupt, a cartwheeling flurry of floorwork, the dancers snatching lines from each other and digging into the newly hewn negative space.

The closing movement presents a two-man tangle in half-light, shirts off and tempers quelled. Bradley Waller and Harry Price bring warmth and vulnerability to this erotic cavort, cradling each other’s frames with care. Wheeldon’s muscular partnering plays on their brawn but also their sensuality, probing all possible corners of passion, from furious desire to gentle, heartfelt affection.

Bradley Waller and Harry Price in Us by Christopher Wheeldon and BalletBoyz.

Bradley Waller and Harry Price in Us by Christopher Wheeldon and BalletBoyz. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Star ratings (out of five):
Richard Alston Dance Company ★★★★
BalletBoyz ★★★

BalletBoyz: Them/Us is at Salisbury Playhouse, 12-13 March, then touring

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