Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Posted: December 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Richard Alston Dance Company, Alston At Home at The Place, November 28

Elly Braund in Alston's Red Run
Elly Braund in Richard Alston’s Red Run (photo: Chris Nash)

Richard Alston was one of the first dancers, along with Siobhan Davies, whom the dance enthusiast and philanthropist Robin Howard invited in 1968 to the building that would become The Place. Howard invited Robert Cohan to be the first artistic director of the school and to ‘form a dance company based on love’. Howard drew up a list of objectives for The Place, including ‘to use the universal language of dance to break down social, political, linguistic and other barriers’ and that ‘its standards should never, for any reason, be allowed to decline.’ It was left to Cohan to embody these objectives, both at the school and in London Contemporary Dance Company, and since the company’s demise in 1994 it has been the aim of Richard Alston’s resident company to maintain them. While keeping the school running, The Place has now seen the formation and dissolution of two resident companies, which is hardly an incentive to students in a performing art. Whatever the reason for closing Alston’s company, the cause is clearly not the company’s current form.

Alston At Home is a fifty-year perspective, from Alston’s very first choreography in 1969 — the solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly — to his latest, Bari, made for graduating students from London Contemporary Dance School. In between there is another early work, Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), something from the intermediate period, Red Run (1998), and two relatively recent works, Isthmus, made for Bob Lockyer’s birthday celebration in 2012, and Martin Lawrance’s Detour (2018). In addition, to mark the centenary of Alston’s mentor, Merce Cunningham, the evening includes two of the solos from the Cunningham Centennial Solos program presented earlier this year at the Barbican. The program is not only a retrospective but a clear mark of Alston’s appreciation to everything The Place has meant to him over the past 25 years. A visual artist of similar renown would be able to hold a retrospective in a single gallery over a period of time; as a choreographer, Alston’s retrospective extends over three programs in various venues, the last of which will be Sadler’s Wells on March 7 and 8 next year. 

What this program shows are Alston’s choreographic building blocks and their spatial development over time. The solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly has a simple structure with classically derived shapes and torsions and a clean sense of line. Set to Terry Riley’s music, there is a Cunningham influence in that what happens is what happens, no more no less. Two years later Alston approaches the adagio of Schubert’s quartet Death and the Maiden with more complexity; Blue Schubert Fragments is choreographed as if each of the six dancers is a solo instrument. Such emotional music can overpower a choreographic response to it, but here Alston extracts a spatial harmony from the integrated texture of the score.

In Bari, the folk-inspired music of South Italian pizzica has a buoyancy and energy — the traditional dance was conceived as an antidote to poisonous spider bites in the field — that the London Contemporary Dance School students relish. So does Alston, who smiles his way through the work with an infectious confidence. 

Alston contributed two works to Lockyer’s birthday bash in 2012, one of which was Isthmus, a quartet for two women and two men to Jo Kondo’s intimate, intricate score. The choreographic shapes are evocative of the earlier works but Alston’s adhesion to the musical rhythms creates a work with the rapid dynamics and sharp spatial patterns that define it. 

Martin Lawrance’s Detour moves up the program order of the evening due to a last-minute replacement of an injured Elly Braund by Hannah Kidd. As a former dancer in the company and the current associate choreographer, Lawrance is clearly an important influence on Alston, and vice versa. Detour, created to Akira Miyoshi’s percussive Ripple for solo marimba, uses elements of Alston’s vocabulary but submits it to an aggressive, virile energy that wrenches it apart. Calm returns after the intermission, with the Cunningham solos that revel in space and chance; Siobhan Davies is perfectly attuned to it in her mysterious dialogue with the air around her while Kidd’s more grounded contribution joins the physical to the aleatory. 

Red Run jolts us back to the energy levels of Lawrance but in responding to Heiner Goebbels’ Nine Songs for Eleven Instruments Alston employs a sense of luxuriant and fast-paced playfulness that challenges the musicality and technical proficiency of the six dancers. It finishes, ironically for this occasion, with a suggestion of death. 


Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Posted: November 8th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Snape Maltings, November 1

Richard Alston, Final Edition
Joshua Harriette and Monique Jonas in Brahms Hungarian (photo: Chris Nash)

There is a natural link between Richard Alston and Snape Maltings through his long association with the music of Benjamin Britten, while his particular style of dance relishes the space afforded by the extraordinary stage area with its brick walls as precipitous as a cathedral nave and as expansive as a concert hall. Alston’s aesthetic seems to value the sanctity of choreography and music without wanting to divert too much attention from it, presenting his company like an orchestra on a concert platform — which is why Snape Maltings works so well for him. For the theatrical element, lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli washes the brick walls with colour while she enhances the clarity of the dancers against the grand scale of the space. But as soon as she inserts her own individuality, as in the rectangle of light she creates for Ellen Yilma and Jennifer Hayes at the end of their duet in Shine On, the image of a tomb seems too overtly representational for Alston’s choreographic imagery. Costumes for the men tend towards a puritan ethic, casual and utilitarian without embellishments, elegant variations on tracksuit pants and sleeveless tops, where bare arms show off Alston’s love of drawing and carving figures in space. The women are more colourful, especially in Brahms Hungarian where Fotini Dimou’s floral patterned dresses move around the body with a joie de vivre inherent in Brahms’ folk-inspired music. In Voices and Light Footsteps, Peter Todd’s costumes and associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s lighting work together like a painting, where Alejandra Gissler’s red dress is the dynamic equivalent of one of JMW Turner’s painterly red marks. 

Alston’s choreographic style, derived from his two major influences of Sir Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham, combines a sparse but reverent classical technique with a romantic, flowing use of the upper body; his vocabulary is not broad but the interest and integrity of what we see is supported by his impeccable musicality that in turn demands the same of his dancers. Personality makes up for a lot in the present company, but musicality is not what it was when the likes of Liam Riddick and Oihana Vesga Bujan were performing, though Elly Braund is still there as a valuable guide. In watching the dancers there’s a suggestion of too much tension in the arms that at speed does not support Alston’s flow of the upper body, and a tendency, especially among the men, to land too heavily. There is something sensuous about soft, pliant landings that goes a long way towards bringing the choreography and the music seamlessly together.  

Over several years Alston’s company has had its portion of Arts Council funding to The Place — where it has been resident for the past quarter of a century — successively reduced to the point he feels he cannot run the company to the standards he needs; the present tour is called Final Edition. On the program is a relatively new repertoire, with two works from this year (Voices and Light Footsteps, and Shine On) and two from 2018 (Detour, and Brahms Hungarian). Voices and Light Footsteps, to a selection of Monteverdi madrigals, balli and sinfonia, sees Alston’s choreographic invention soaring with the music, creating a series of courtly dances that sweep up the voices into the air; there is a joy about the work that belies the tumultuous year in which it was created. Lawrance’s Detour, played out to a percussive score by Akira Miyoshi for solo marimba, is a contrast both in its dynamic pace and in the predominance of masculine energy; it features whipping arms and legs in a fast and furious choreography with brute overtones of anger and frustration.

Shine On, to Britten’s early song cycle On This Island for piano and voice (performed respectively by Jason Ridgeway and Katherine McIndoe), is clearly dark in tone, drawing its choreographic line from WH Auden’s poetry that begins with a fanfare (Let the florid music praise!) and turns through the haunting Nocturne to irrevocable loss (As it is, plenty). The symbolism is evident, and yet Alston returns in the finale to the opening musical fanfare with the dancers finishing in a reverence towards the public. Alston dedicates the work to Lizzie Fargher ‘whose enthusiasm for dance (and music) has sustained and encouraged me every time I have been to Snape and to Dance East.’

In closing the program with Brahms Hungarian Alston shows his undefeated spirit with a suite of dances to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for solo piano that Ridgeway plays with gusto. As Alston remarked stoically after the final applause, “I love this place and I’m not going to say goodbye!”


DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Posted: July 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Dansox Inaugural Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, July 6-8

Dansox Summer School
Nicolas Lancret’s Mlle. Camargue dancing

The inaugural DANSOX Summer School, curated by Professor Sue Jones over a three-day weekend at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, brought together scholars, authors, critics and practitioners to share their knowledge of dance as a language on a multitude of levels. Alastair Macaulay, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, anchored each daily session with a talk about a major influence on our dance heritage — Marius Petipa, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham respectively — illustrated with extensive video footage. As a dance critic of long standing, Macaulay approached each body of work with a perspective that was rich in historical detail and, in the case of Cunningham, personal association. His interpretations were the fruit of repeated viewings and reflection, while he filled out the lives of their creators and interpreters with a propensity for vibrant and often amusing anecdotes. The broad canvas he painted each morning set the tone for the sessions that followed. 

After Macaulay’s lecture on Petipa, historian Moira Goff gave a talk on and a demonstration of baroque dance. While classical ballet steps (and their terms) derive from the French court, Goff displayed the form and dynamics of those steps from Feuillet’s notation, and how they developed from France to the English Restoration stage. She not only gave clues to the form of a performance from this era but showed how these origins of classical ballet technique lead us inexorably to Petipa’s vocabulary in the late nineteenth century. 

Researcher and author Julia Bührle provided more historical detail in her talk on two important dancing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Weaver in England and Jean-Georges Noverre in France. Each wrote a treatise that legitimized ballet d’action in terms of literary sources and Bührle cites Weaver’s 1717 spectacle, The Loves of Mars and Venus, and Noverre’s 1763 Medée et Jason as the forerunners of narrative ballet. 

Bringing us into the twentieth century, filmmaker Lynne Wake introduced her documentary, Queen and Béjart: Ballet For Life. Béjart took his choreographic inspiration from the music of Queen to celebrate the lives of those like Jorge Donn and Freddie Mercury who had died young as a result of AIDS. The documentary combines rehearsals by Béjart Ballet Lausanne (an outstanding cast directed by Gil Roman) with outtakes from 1997 footage by David Mallett of the first performance of Ballet For Life in Paris. Wake’s documentary is moving in both its filming and its editing (by Christopher Bird), and shows how the lineage of classical ballet has evolved from the confines of a royal court to a vast public arena.

Each day followed a similar pattern of synaptic sparks tying all the talks and demonstrations together. After Macaulay’s lecture on Balanchine, musicologist and dance researcher Renata Bräuninger gave an incisive talk on Balanchine’s musicality followed by Gabriela Minden’s exploration of Tamara Karsarvina’s experiment in gestural choreography (harking back to Weaver and Noverre) for J.M. Barrie’s 1920 play The Truth about the Russian Dancers, and by Maggie Watson’s paper on aspects of the pastoral in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe

While each talk revealed how much historical and theoretical research on dance is still waiting in the wings, Susie Crow offered a practical approach to the history and theory of the ballet class with the help of pianist Jonathan Still and dancers Ben Warbis and Ellie Ferguson of Yorke Dance Project. This vital focus on balletic training is linked to current teaching practice, which in turn drives the future direction of classical ballet. Keeping on the subject of practice, Jennifer Jackson and composer Tom Armstrong organised a workshop with dancers Courtney Reading and Gabrielle Orr on Sleeping Beauty, showing how their contemporary approach to both classical choreography and its musical score can generate a fresh interest in such iconic works. 

Following two talks by Fiona Macintosh and Tom Sapsford that linked dance and the classics, the final day continued with Macaulay’s lecture on Cunningham, and Sir Richard Alston’s demonstration, with dancer Elly Braund, of his relationship to Cunningham’s choreography throughout his dance career and in subsequent dances he created on his own company. The notion of classicism in dance was a theme throughout the DANSOX summer school and it concluded where it began with that most ‘classical’ of choreographers, Petipa. On hand was author and former dance critic, Nadine Meisner, to celebrate the launch of her Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master, ‘the first biography in English of this monumental figure of ballet history’, published appropriately by Oxford University Press.