Melissa Blease reviews Richard Alston Dance Company’s Carnaval, Chacony & Gypsy Mixture at Theatre Royal Bath, 26 and 27 January

The Richard Alston Dance Company paid only a fleeting visit to Bath, but the experience will surely linger long in the memories of those who caught this trilogy of pieces from one of the UK’s most highly-regarded dance ensembles.

This February, Alston – a celebrated choreographer with a fascinating history – will be marking the 50th birthday of his very first choreography, while his latest piece, Carnaval, is his 140th dance. But time has not stood still for this remarkable company.

Emotion, humanity, sensitivity, exhilaration and innovation are, to me, the five words that best describe Alston’s work, and yet each of these dances represent three distinctly different interpretations of the words.

Carnaval is a haunting, deeply moving piece inspired by the life of German composer Robert Schumann, depicted here as a dual character struggling with mental illness and described from his wife Clara’s perspective and experience. Pianist Jason Ridgway is as much a part of the dance as the dancers are, gliding through a technically challenging score with the grace of a figure skater in one corner of the stage, while Elly Braund’s magnificently fluid Clara brings a captivating blend of fragility and strength to a highly complex character.

In Chacony, the boys are pushed to the fore… albeit in that typically Alston fashion that proves how powerful masculine vulnerability can be. The piece is set to the music of Purcell and Britten and with a back-story as similarly moving as Carnaval’s. Britten – an ardent pacifist – performed a series of recitals for survivors of concentration camps in Germany in 1945; the experience impacted dramatically on his work, and his arrangement of the Purcell chacony provides a lush, hypnotic, evocative and – unpredictably – uplifting backdrop to a dance that blends sharp, pristine modernity with elegant, sophisticated classical ballet construction to remarkable effect.

Gypsy Mixture takes us on a very different journey altogether. Set to the compilation album Electric Gypsyland and bringing together a heady blend of Balkan folk music, Asian tabla beats, modern world music rhythms from artists such as Mahala Rai Banda and Taraf de Haïdouks, and even the sounds of children crying, dogs barking and enthusiastic musicians shouting their support to one another, we’re suddenly on raucously hot territory, all teasing hip-shimmies, passion-fuelled embraces and sheer, exuberant sensuality. Gypsy Mixture is sexy and it knows it.

Richard Alston is a dance genius – and hopefully he knows that, too.

Main image: Carnaval by Richard Alston Dance Company featuring Nicholas Bodych and Elly Braund, photo by Chris Nash