Britten Sinfonia and the Richard Alston Dance Company

Helen Wallace enjoys the inexhaustible invention of a brilliant evening of dance at the Barbican

‘Who thinks most deeply loves what is most lively’. These words, given to Socrates by the poet Hölderlin, resonated throughout a beguiling programme by the Britten Sinfonia and the Richard Alston Dance Company. The flickering vitality of Britten’s music, its sprung rhythms, inexhaustible invention and sensuous undertow begs to be danced to. But it takes a choreographer of genius to succeed. Enter Richard Alston with his passionate musicality and rich, dynamic vocabulary; the scene was set for a rare, alchemical transformation.

Of the four works by Britten, Six Hölderlin fragments and Phaedra were premieres, while Lachrymae and Les Illuminations had been written for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1994.

Perhaps most darkly dazzling was the neglected Hölderlin cycle, sung with precision by tenor Robin Tritschler, with velvet-toned pianist Christopher Glynn. These songs have none of Britten’s easy facility, but an unpredictable flow and intimacy all their own. Alston mines their playfulness – charismatic Nathan Goodman provoked laughter with his impish, swivel-hipped ‘Youth’ – along with profundity, in Oihana Vesga Bujan’s beautiful ‘swan’ dance, and the formal, canonic elegance of ‘The Lines of Life’.

Alston conjures up a ground for his dancers somewhere along the mid-body line, so that they appear always to be moving around an airborne axis, buoyant, powerful, fluid and apparently weightless. This latest work shows his vision to be ever-more refined yet ever more varied.

Phaedra, Britten’s imperious scena written for Janet Baker, inspired an operatic treament. It was visually daring, effectively animating the drama – sometimes too obviously – with the lithe Ihsaan de Banya as Hippolytus and object of Phaedra’s lust. Young mezzo Allison Cook, more secure in her lower register, proved a convincing victim, if not the ‘monster’ she describes, surrounded by blood-red bodies, the centre of a whirl of opposing forces.

Alston has lovingly transformed the ten variations of the mysterious Lachrymae into a chain of intimate duets, characterised by broad, curving gesture, and exquisite, interlocking balances. Pekka Kuusisto led from the viola, in a slightly rough performance though expertly paced to give the final part due ceremony.

An unfailingly engaging musician, Kuusisto came into his own in Les illuminations where he created a disarming sense of spontaneity with Tritschler and the Britten Sinfonia. I have never heard such flexible, intuitive accompaniment of this piece before. His solos in ‘Antique’ captured the phantasmagoric zaniness of Rimbaud’s visions, swooning drunkenly, while cellist Caroline Dearnley’s winding arabesques rose with a dancer-like poise of their own.

No wonder this work provoked resentment in Britten’s contemporaries: who else could write for strings with such zinging resonance? The choreography itself is exhilaratingly athletic, interleaved with the story of Rimbaud and Verlaine, etched now more clearly than in the original. The ‘Parade’ of grotesques was deftly done: Liam Riddick’s Rimbaud was impetuous, swaggering and confused. With Fotini Dimou’s self-effacing costumes bathed in Charles Balfour’s ideal glow, there wasn’t a sour note all evening.

Britten, I have no doubt, would have approved.

Performances continue on Friday 8 and Saturday 9 November. Click here for more information.