Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: April 4th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition at Sadler’s Wells

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Sadler’s Wells, March 7 & 8

Richard Alston Dance Company Voices and Light Footsteps
Jennifer Hayes, Niall Egan, Alejandra Gissler, and Ellen Yilma in Voices and Light Footsteps (photo: Chris Nash)

It is perhaps too soon and too delicate to unpick the accumulation of political and economic decisions that have led to the premature closing of such a renowned cultural entity as Richard Alston Dance Company. Alston has known for the past two years that ‘my Company simply could not continue beyond this Spring’, and for someone who admits to have been ‘entirely lacking in any sort of strategic plan’ over his fifty-year choreographic career, he has managed to end with remarkable prescience. The latest run of performances has finished just one week before Sadler’s Wells closure for (at least) the next three months to comply with the government’s guidance on containing the coronavirus pandemic. In the current climate, Alston’s company may well feel relieved that its calendar of adieux has been able to run its course and finish in style; if there is such a thing as a good death, this is it. For Alston, however, there is no intimation of mortality; on the contrary, in the last two years he has created some of his best work and has built his company to technical and expressive heights. 

This Final Edition is the last of several national and international performances by the company; the choice of program is as much a retrospective as a statement of current form. The earliest work is Isthmus from 2012 to the music of Jo Condo, followed by Mazur from 2015 to Chopin mazurkas played on stage by long-time collaborator, Jason Ridgway. Two younger recruits to the company, Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis, get inside the music and its relationship to the choreography to create an emotional portrait of elegance and close friendship. Three works on the program date from the past tumultuous year: Bari for the graduating students of Alston’s alma mater, London Contemporary Dance School, Voices and Light Footsteps and Shine On. First performed by the students at the Alston At Home program at The Place, Bari is inspired by the pizzica music of the Puglia region in southern Italy. Alston’s mastery of form and pattern partners the liveliness of the musical rhythms to create a gem of choreographic construction — not so much a translation of the traditional pizzica dance as a transposition of the earthiness in the music. Music has always been the motivation for Alston’s choreography, the source from which both the rhythm and the style of his movement arise. In Shine On, he returns to one of his favourite composers, Benjamin Britten, for the collection of songs On This Island set to five of WH Auden’s poems; they are sung by Katherine McIndoe accompanied by Ridgway. Alston enters the work through Britten’s joyous opening fanfare, but Auden’s pessimism casts a long shadow that Alston — as well as lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli — alternately rejects and absorbs, most poignantly in the central Nocturne where Niall Egan and Harriette express the pain of a love that must remain in the shadows. After this vein of darkness, Martin Lawrance steps in with his own contribution, A Far Cry, set to the elegiac Introduction and Allegro for Strings by Sir Edward Elgar. It is in effect a paean to Alston from the opening fanfare to its triumphant coda, embracing elements of his style within Lawrance’s own characteristic rush of energy. In the ecstatic entrances and exits there is a sense of a continuation well beyond the stage, embracing all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. 

In the final work, Voices and Light Footsteps, Alston transcends any sense of darkness by returning to another of his favourite composers, Claudio Monteverdi, and through the music to the early seventeenth century period in which he lived. Not only are there traces of courtly Renaissance dance in the work (it is dedicated to the memory of Alston’s historical dance teacher, Belinda Quirey), but emotions and virtues that have supported him through difficult times appear to be subtly embedded in the choreography. Each member of the company has their own light and colour but their individuality is sublimated to the harmony of the whole. Voices and Light Footsteps is spiritually uplifting and visually stunning, with costumes by Peter Todd under lighting by Lawrance; its central duet, danced on alternate nights by Monique Jonas and Elly Braund with Shikkis, is its crowning achievement. The work ends, significantly, with Monteverdi’s Damigella Tutta Bella, which Alston notes ‘is the earliest music I can remember hopping around to as a small boy.’ TS Eliot could have written the epitaph with the last line of East Coker: ‘In my end is my beginning.’

Dancers in Richard Alston Dance Company for this Final Edition: Elly Braund, Niall Egan, Alejandra Gissler, Joshua Harriette, Jennifer Hayes, Monique Jonas, Nahum McLean, Nicholas Shikkis, Jason Tucker and Ellen Yilma.


Hubert Essakow, Terra

Posted: March 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hubert Essakow, Terra

Hubert Essakow, Terra, The Print Room at The Coronet, March 12

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Terra is the final part of Hubert Essakow’s trilogy based on the three elements of water, fire and earth. First came Flow, then Ignis and now Terra. I didn’t see Flow but in Ignis Essakow used the analogy of human passion to explore the element, and fire also made a dramatic appearance on stage. In Terra the analogy with earth is that of the human footprint but the element of earth does not appear on stage. In the handsome program for Terra are three performance photographs by Zadoc Nava of Estela Merlos, Luke Crook and Benjamin Warbis dancing on sand; the link with earth is immediate, but for some reason the concept has not been carried into the production.

After a stunning opening solo by Merlos as the romantic, half-naked spirit of Mother Earth, four chalky white dancers climb onto the cramped white stage with their white rhomboid suitcases, to begin Earth’s population. They look as if they are artists from a travelling mime circus who have lost their way. The contrast with Mother Earth couldn’t be greater, but paradoxically it is she who is out of place in Terra. The set, by Sofie Lachaert & Luc D’Hanis, is a paper cliff at the foot of which furniture thrown down from the top has come to rest: chairs, a table, a wardrobe, a lamp, a broken mirror. Everything is whitewashed, abstracted and drained of any hint of earth. The set instead belongs to an artistic concept for which Terra seems ill adapted. Lachaert and D’Hanis are designers who have ‘built together an intriguing oeuvre of objects, furniture and site-specific installations, in which they interrogate the boundaries between fine art, craft and design.’ That might work well in the Hayward Gallery but not here. Martina Trottman’s costumes are clearly influenced by Lachaert and D’Hanis so two of the principle theatrical elements in Terra take it in a different direction, one suspects, from that conceived by the choreographer. Militating against the shift is a poem by Ben Okri who was commissioned to write it for Terra. It is rich in allusions and allegories of Earth and we hear the sonorous voice of Okri reading passages from it through the work. Introduced initially over Merlos’s solo with sound designer Gareth Mitchell’s soft rumbling of falling rocks, Terra thus begins in harmony before the seismic conceptual shift takes over.

…Our beginning who knows it,
Except the silent mother
Who was the womb
For all this history.
From her we grow, we die,
We rise…

The four dancers (Crook, Warbis, Rob Bridger and Monique Jonas) gather cautiously on the shore, a confluence of strangers despite their similar appearance and identical suitcases. There is a little mistrust in their exploration of each other, a testing of boundaries and balance, as Merlos, now costumed similarly, tries to make them feel at home. Jean-Michel Bernard’s score is redolent of Debussy, airy and playful, while Mitchell’s growling sounds suggest weight and danger.

All these faces,
All these masks and dreams
And dances,
All these leaps into the unknown,
All these eyes
That gaze into the mysteries,
All these feet

That turn and leap and glide
Across continents
In the curving dance
Of time.

Essakow’s choreography keeps close to Okri’s poetry, finding in it both the keys to the non-narrative nature of his elemental drama and personal traits for his dancers; Jonas’s solo, like Merlos’s earlier, arises out of the verse, embodying it and enriched by it. The human footprint is extended by the appearance of Constance Booth whose maturity allows her to hold her own with the adults, as much a child of the family as she is an individual in her own right. Essakow now condenses the action to a series of short tableaux separated by blackouts: the family; broadening horizons; risk-taking and exploration on the paper mountain with a pulsing score. You get the idea, but in such a cramped space with a restrictive set that waters down the elemental force of Okri’s poem, the human footprint slows to a melodramatic plod with predictable symbolism; we hear a recording of different languages while the performers stare at the audience as if looking at the future. The three women dance to Okri’s lines:

Mother of culture
And all the magic
We can conceive,
She is the greatest
Magic of them all.

When the men rejoin, the stage is swirling in movement but without a clear idea of where it is going until it resolves in a line at the front of the stage. The cast leaves except for Merlos and Booth, the ‘spirit made flesh’ and the promise of a future. There is the rumbling sound again, and Merlos looks at the girl, performs a kind of benediction and retreats.

At a post-show talk with Marc Brew at the Lilian Baylis just two days before, Dame Evelyn Glennie had spoken of the nature of collaborations as being intrinically unstable; you just don’t know if it’s going to work until the collaboration is complete. With Terra Essakow staked his success on a raft of collaborators, some of whom understood his concept and others who just supplied their own. Perhaps that is, after all, an apt, if unintended comment on the current state of the Earth.