Richard Alston Dance Company

The company of one of the most inspiring & influential choreographers in British dance

June 1, 2011

Richard Alston Dance Company at the Oxford Playhouse, 1st - 2nd June 2011

Richard Alston’s choreography is towards the balletic end of contemporary dance, managing to combine classical precision and poise with gymnastic feats and the emphasis on atmosphere often important in modern music and dance.

The mix of classical and modern was particularly visible in ‘Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms’, a pas-de-deux danced in semi darkness with precise beams of light shining as though from high up windows. Inspired by the paintings of Vermeer and the lute music of Denis Gaultier, it really went for the atmospheric side of things. The two dancers entered slowly as if meeting illicitly in a deserted library, and the dance that followed - though studied and full of held poses like a series of paintings morphing into each other – seemed to continue the narrative. Intimate moments of stillness punctuated the flowing movement, where the performers simply stood close to each other, or lay on the stage floor together. It was the combination of precise dance moves and the personal drama that really held my attention.

The second half of this dance I found needed more concentration, when the guitarist swapped to a banjo and the baroque sounding cadences gave way to spiky discordance. In terms of the narrative, it felt like we had reached the stressful part of the relationship. There are clear challenges involved in matching dance to this kind of music - when it is very difficult as an audience member to pick out a time signature or even distinguish phrases on a first hearing – and it seemed less like the dance moves were coupled with the music, more like they were inspired by it from a distance.

While remaining within one style, the choreography was far from homogenous, and private poise gave way to exuberant gymnastics in ‘Roughcut’, by far the most energetic piece of the evening. Similarly divided into two halves - first with a clarinet and backing tape, then with electric guitar and backing tape - the entire cast of ten dancers took part in this rollicking finale. Spotlight was given to each couple in between really euphoric moments where they all danced together to the swelling and diminishing strains of clarinet or guitar.

Live music onstage throughout added a lot to the performance. In intimate moments having one musician in sight rather than projected music in the background increased the privacy of the setting, and in more energetic moments there was something immediate about having at least one strand of the harmony coming from the musician on the stage in front of you, and not all from the backing tape.

The performers in the Richard Alston Dance Company made the most fantastic moves look easy, and their technical excellence was evident in their ability to dance in perfect unison and move seamlessly from one extraordinary position to another. Added to this, I would go again just for the drama. It is not the easiest music and choreography to relate to – you might not be tapping your foot to every beat or humming themes on the way home – but it is wonderful drama from powerful dancers. I’d recommend catching them while they’re in town.

May 28, 2009

Richard Alston Dance Triple Bill (Blow Over, To Dance, Skylark), Oxford Playhouse, 28 - 29 May 2009

You wouldn't know it's been choreographed, it seems so natural. Perfectly synchronised, powerful bodies do exactly what you want them to do, weaving in and out of the music. Lighting changes and powerful music choices animate a very capable dance troupe. It's wonderfully abstract, clear but substantial stuff. And it's so expansive it needs a great apron added to the Playhouse stage.

To the surprisingly ear-friendly strains of Philip Glass, a pair of dancers appear. They're in costumes slightly remeniscent of Blade Runner, and their movements propel them from one poise to another. There's nothing tense or artificial, and they seem to use the momentum like pendulums, so the statuesque shapes are merely the breath-holding pause before the movement starts again. The second song is fast and furious, and the poor hydraulic dancers keep up with the techno beat.

For the second dance a grand piano has appeared. The pianist's movements seem to echo those of the dancers, his wrists curling. He plays without a score. The rapidity of the pianist's performance of Stravinsky is a real threat to your undivided attention on the dancers, who created an abstract performance that's confused but strangely satisfied. Their leaps jar perfectly with the deranged Russian piece. This dance melds the stories of Petrushka and its star Nijinsky's descent into madness. 6 dancers perform a homage to all the swains-and-lasses movements from all the classical ballets, with Cossack notes and off-kilter, modern GI gestures.

The third act is a mesmorising mass of swirling, whirling arms, legs and bodies. The brightly clad dancers perfectly echo the music's effortless fluidity, punctuated with wicked grins. It is flawless. You suddenly realise it's the crystallisation of what you've always pictured when you listen to the Brandenburg Concertos. It's odd, given the temporal discrepancy, that it's so well-matched but Bach can rest easy now contemporary dance has complemented him. Lawrance's work is so very much school-of-Alston it was half way through before I twigged it wasn't Alston's own.

If you missed this last night you're still in luck - this time it's a two-night run. Catch it, and never hear Bach the same way again!

April 19, 2007

The Devil In The Detail, Oxford Playhouse, 19-20 Apr 2007

Four beautiful dances interspersed with two twenty minute intervals give a running time of one hour and fifty minutes, offering a comprehensive performance of work by this genius English choreographer. The live classical music (J. S. Bach’s Capriccio and Toccata) is worth the ticket price alone. Alston widely states the music is his starting point and this shows as the dancers fuse effortlessly with the melody. New choreographer and company member Martin Lawrance devises the cool, blue, feisty Brink. Japanese composer, Ayuo, provides stunning, innovative music in a tango composition played on the accordion for Brink. The piece is full of great tension and clean lines as couples step tightly around the floor. The thrust stage is thrust even further as the dance space is extended substantially into the audience seating area. This creates the feel of the viewer sitting in the dance studio with the performers and being privy to the buzz of the creative process. Bringing the dancers closer to the audience means the glint of an eye, the odd wry smile and intense detail adds extra meaning and drama to the pieces.

Costumes are sylish but not overly complicated so they never distract from the fine dance. The stage is empty but for a bold backlit screen that reflects the mood of the piece. A grand piano occupies the stage for Alston’s new piece Fingerprint and the highly popular Devil in the Detail. The latter is a series of soft, light, Charleston style steps set to Scott Joplin compositions. At the end of the piece I can’t work out why my face is aching and it’s because I have been uncontrollably smiling while the sunny feeling of the ragtime dance fills the stage. The Summer mood about the city streets today is transferred into the 1950’s salad days costumes. The jollity of the ragged music (hence the term ‘ragtime’) that is created from breaking up the chords is in opposition to the tragedy that the composer Joplin experienced. After his ragtime operas failed he lived a destitute, broken man.

As a contrast, the evening fires off with costumes in hot coloured silks and the sounds of a post modern electric guitar playing a Heiner Goebbels’ composition specifically devised for choreography, namely Alston’s early piece (1998) Red Run. After the interval Fingerprint, Alston’s latest work (2007), is accompanied by the virtuoso pianist Jason Ridgway. Such is the quality of the pianist it is hard to resist closing your eyes to fully absorb the music and let the movement sink in. But on the stage the dancers are telling the profound story of Bach’s brother leaving Germany for Sweden. Capriccio (Martin Lawrance, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, Pierre Tappon, Rose Sudworth, Peter Furness, Amie Brown) is followed by Toccata (Silvestre Sanchez Strattner, Anneli Binder, Jonathan Goddard). Both pieces were composed by Bach during his youth; a time when it is likely he enjoyed dancing himself. The beauty of the storytelling in Fingerprint is simple, breathtaking and meaningful whilst remaining subtle and at times abstract. One feels in the wake of video imagery, sophisticated circus skills and license to bust social taboos that is on offer to today’s choreographer that less is still more. Over the vociferous applause, I shout to try and make my point heard to the man on my right. He tells me to be quiet. It’s Alston. And it’s not so loud.

April 18, 2007

The Devil In The Detail, Oxford Playhouse, 19-20 Apr 2007

These four beautiful dances leave you hungry for more. We danced all the way home.

Red Run first: the programme announces grandly that "the opening music subsides gradually into a morose and humid torpor". We can't wait! It's not my style of music at all - periods of screechy electric guitar, piano, aggression and sadness, and moments so quiet you can hear the dancers' footfall. But the music and dance go perfectly together. Dancers come and go in broken groupings and partnerships. Slowly and fitfully they gather. Then the arid yellow backdrop changes abruptly to black and they disperse. There is a particularly beautiful pas de deux between Peter Furness and Pierre Tappon. They roll and tumble over one another's backs. One seems to fold up his partner and put him away. I have never seen such successful choreography for two men, equal and alternating like a stream of water. I find the piece heartbreakingly beautiful and frequently breathtaking, from the first moment when Jonathan Goddard prowls on to the stage and is pulled abruptly backwards by invisible forces. The movements are precise and catlike, calling for perfect balance to glide through the sudden changes of direction, pace and pauses.

We have just time to catch our breath, the scene changes to blue, and we enter Brink, choreographed by Martin Lawrance to Japanese Ayuo's Eurasian Tango on Parisian-esque accordian. Couples whirl, not in classic tango moves but to tango rhythm. In a lovely middle section two couples swap pairings constantly.

After an interval a sleek grand piano appears on stage. JS Bach's Capriccio in B flat and Toccata in D major are the basis for the next piece Fingerprint. Partings are explored, referencing the Capriccio's scenes of the parting between JS Bach and his brother Jakob. In both pieces the faster movements are beautifully danced and choreographed - ensemble scenes of mimicked actions to solo turns. I don't feel the slower movements work so well. There doesn't seem to be reference to the piano, the choreography doesn't really enhance the music and even the phrasing doesn't seem to fit so well. Not my favourite dance of the evening, then, but still plenty to admire.

Another interval, and the eponymous piece, which I'm sure is what many people have come to see. The Devil In The Detail is danced to a collection of Scott Joplin rags and waltzes. It lives up to everything I have hoped for - joy and wit and fun! Another superb all-male pas de deux, this one unmistakably sexual. We're transported so successfully to a bygone era I catch myself watching the dancers amassing on stage and thinking "The joint is really filling up!". All the dances in this section are lovely, as are the jaunty costumes, the sudden grins, and a sense of grandeur I'd never associated with Joplin before. At times slow and stately and very much part of the classical tradition, the feeling of timelessness is assisted by the mix of very classical ballet and contemporary jazz moves. We climax, suitably, with The Entertainer, and the breathless dancers (and pianist Jason Ridgway) take a bow.

Even the curtain calls are polished and a shapely. Everything about the evening has been professional and joyful, and a real pleasure to watch. I unreservedly recommend the company, the choreography, the costumes, and the show. It's at the end of its run - catch it while you can!
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