Forty years ago, British modern dance was essentially nonexistent. Today several of its choreographers are internationally renowned, among them Michael Clark, Akram Khan, and not least Richard Alston, artistic director of London’s first (and still foremost) centre for modern-dance training, the Place. Alston trained at the Place himself, as a student in the ’60s, and created his first dances there. Forty years on, Alston has conceived a new program for his Richard Alston Dance Company that is partly a retrospective, partly an offering of new work, as a kind of reverse present in honor of his 60th birthday.

Simply titled 40/60, the show premiered last week in London and is now on a short UK tour through the fall. The company’s performances last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre provided eager audiences with the chance to see anew—or indeed to encounter for the first time (the stalls at Tuesday’s show held a conspicuously youthful crowd; a dance school mass-booking perhaps?)—the vital place that Alston holds in British dance history. Other choreographers’ work might be more theatrically interesting, more morally charged, and certainly more “cutting edge”: it is hard to find anything even mildly provocative about Alston’s work, unless you are a pre-adolescent girl set atwitter at the mere sight of toned thighs in tights. But none more than Alston can convey such a relentless, expansive delight in dance-making itself. Inherent to his style is a joy in the body’s sheer expressive range, manifest (in his best pieces) in masterful footwork, rich ensemble patterning, high-stretching lines, and sharp, precisely delineated individual performances. Plenty of these qualities were on display in 40/60, and both the new offerings and the retrospective survey struck high notes of invention and charm.

The program’s opener was the new “Shuffle it Right,” set to recordings of Hoagy Carmichael performing nine of his own songs. The male dancers, clad in summer whites, exuded a soft-shoe nonchalance that was disarming at first (where was the energy?) but then settled into a rhythm as engagingly offbeat as Carmichael’s lyrics. Five women arrived, in spring frocks and Toni & Guy hairdoes, and they all commenced a witty series of ensembles, solos, and duets, springing lightly from the music. The night’s other new piece was “Blow Over,” a bold display of complex ensemble dancing and riveting solo work—especially by Pierre Tappon, whose enormous control of his compact, powerful frame made him the evening’s most consistently fascinating performer. Sadly this work was significantly marred by its soundtrack, a couple of blaring pop songs by Philip Glass that hammered at the brain, prompted some embarrassingly literal visual effects (strobe flashes during “Lightning”; groan), and generally distracted from the movement. Alston’s visuals are best when most understated—as in “La Vallee des Cloches,” the final solo from Alston’s “Shimmer,” where the tiny crystals adorning the dancer’s net-like blue shirt become a metaphor for the intricacy, delicacy, and intimate tone of the piece.

This solo, danced with a wonderful gravity by Martin Lawrance, was one of the high points of “The Men in My Life,” the evening’s main event. Featuring snippets of work that Alston has created across four decades for specific male dancers, the survey impressed in its great range of tones and materials. Other strong pieces here included the cell-scene from “Movements from Petrushka” (another thrilling appearance by Tappon) and the cheery, muscular “The Signal of a Shake”.

The dances were not uniformly gripping. Alston admits in the program notes that he has “made far too much work”, and at times the dancing reverted to generic mannerisms and occasional disingenuousness, especially in the male-female duets. But as a whole, the evening beautifully showcased the wit, diversity, and sincere human interest that has long distinguished Alston at his best.

Review of 40/60,performed by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 7-8 October 2008. The company will tour a version of this show to several UK venues in November, including the Edinburgh Festival Theatre: tour schedule available here.