Modern Moves With a British Accent? Do Tell Us More . . .

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

When it comes to modern dance, I'm an utter chauvinist. Americans have historically been the best in the world at this indigenous American art form. But my prejudice may be tested when the Richard Alston Dance Company, from England, makes its first Washington area appearance Oct. 10 at George Mason University.

Alston is a big fish in the rather small pond of British modern dance. He formed his troupe 15 years ago, having studied with Merce Cunningham in New York in the 1970s. From what I've seen in brief video clips and from what I've read about him, he is known for small-scale, delicate, music-derived works that reward close attention, from the ears as well as the eyes. This sounds like just my cup of tea.

I'm a romantic. I like small, delicate and musical because I often find more honesty in such works, more that feels human and sheds light on some mystery cached within the familiar, than in what's explosive and dazzling. Give me just a wisp of an idea, a subtle suggestion, a hint, and I'll take off running with it, dreaming up allusions and connections. That's so much more interesting than the hard sell, where all your responses are laid out for you like a prix-fixe menu during Restaurant Week.

Alston's program at George Mason seems to be about experiencing familiar things anew: music by Philip Glass and Stravinsky -- old standbys in the world of concert dance -- legendary hitmaker Hoagy Carmichael's songs, swing dancing. I'm especially interested in the artist who can tease revelation out of the familiar. As between that and a work centered on something more overtly extraordinary -- the most experimental music, say, or an in-your-face deconstruction -- I find that engagement with what's well-trod and universal to the human experience often offers more to think about.

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