What a relief to experience Richard Alston’s coherent choreography after the overblown pretensions of Tesseract at the Barbican! Alston and his Associate Choreographer Martin Lawrance see no need for digital trickery, video distractions and booming soundscapes. Instead, they give prominence to dancers performing the right steps in the right order in response to music. Over the 25 years of his company’s existence, Alston has developed a sophisticated dance language with its own grammar, akin to that of classical ballet. Lawrance makes use of a speedier syntax. Seemingly Alston’s heir, he might have inherited the company, were it not that RADC is to close next year for lack of Arts Council funding.
Although both choreographers will pursue their own courses, the contemporary dance ecology will lose an endangered source of musical movement – especially now that Rambert has adopted a ‘less formalised’ approach under its latest artistic director, Benoit Swan Pouffer. Alston’s choreography is formal in that it has structure, style and steps, instead of resorting to running in circles. Its partnering etiquette is courteous rather than abusive. Above all, the dancers listen to the music, following its phrasing. But they’re not stiffly formal or remote from their audience: their rapture in what and how they dance is infectious.
In Alston’s latest creation, Brahms Hungarian, the music is so catchy that it’s impossible to sit still. Jason Ridgeway plays onstage ten of Brahms’s Hungarian-influenced piano studies, originally written for two pianos. Nine dancers (the entire company) come and go in duets, trios and quartets to folk-inflected melodies. At the centre is Monique Jonas’s Raymonda (in Petipa’s 19th century ballet a Magyar aristocrat), who dances with dignified hauteur to Brahms’s version of the czardas. She is flanked by three handmaidens, arms en couronne or with elbows folded. Their pretty dresses, designed by Fotini Dimou and made by Hilary Wili, make them look like Raymonda’s bridesmaids.
Elly Braund has a moody czardas solo, as well as an opening duet with Nicholas Shikkis that comes across as a conversation: each dancer makes a statement to which the other responds, pausing for effect before leaving together in agreement. Other duets are more playful, dashing across the stage, with the female partner lifted impulsively. Alston is expert at combining buoyant skipping steps on cascades of piano notes with a pliant use of the upper body. When the couples swirl to a halt in silence, the women’s skirts continue to float around them.
As the closing piece to the evening, Brahms Hungarian serves an assurance that Alston is still on top of his game. He took his bow at the curtain call hobbled in the surgical boot he had worn to accept his knighthood last week. He had torn his Achilles tendon running for a bus, but he’s still brimful of dance in the fiftieth year of his career as a choreographer.
He included a compilation of extracts from four earlier works for his company, 2000-2018, especially for the Sadler’s Wells season. It’s a mini-retrospective, like his Mid-Century Modern collation in last year’s touring programme. This time there were two solos, two duets and an ensemble finale, bringing back memories of the original casts. (Alston has ‘lost’ so many marvellous dancers to other companies or other pursuits over the years, though he has successfully continued developing new ones.)
The two solos, Fever (2001) and Shimmer (2004) are elegiac, despite their titles. Jonas danced Fever imperiously to a Monteverdi lament, phrased to match the singer’s breath; Joshua Harriett was sensually sculptural to Ravel’s chiming bells (though that bum-baring turquoise top from 2004 was always a mistake). Bach Dances (2018), to two of Bach’s jolliest compositions, was joyfully performed by Jennifer Hayes and Ellen Yilma. Last came Signal of a Shake (2000) to sprightly Handel: the dancers address each other as equals in duets, then acknowledge the audience for the last section, repeated even faster the second time. A witty commentary on the music, it emphasises hand gestures, emulating Handel’s rhythmic flourishes.
Then came Proverb, created for composer Steve Reich’s 70th birthday celebrations in 2006 and revived for Alston’s own 70th birthday last year. The proverb reiterated in Reich’s choral music is a concise statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.’ A programme note implies that Alston was thinking of painstaking craft rather than a flash of inspiration. He builds the dance by combining a series of duets until they become a communal activity, with a brief solo for a (temporary) outsider, Nicholas Shikkis.
The male couples are more intriguing than the other pairings because of the physical difference in their partnering. They negotiate the way they handle each other, questioning or colluding, when tall Carmine De Amicis agrees to synchronise moves with shorter Jason Tucker. Women dancing together are slighter, without the heft of the men. As the main heterosexual couple, Elly Braund and Joshua Harriette complement each other as contrasting personalities, without sexual complications. Unless, that is, the proverb repeated at the end could apply to the creation of a child.
In Martin Lawrance’s recent Detour to two percussive scores, the couples appear to be combatants. The opening music, Ripple for Solo Marimba, sets Braund and Shikkis confronting each other in bouts interrupted by stasis when the marimba runs out of reverberating ripples. The notes sound softer and sweeter for a duet between tiny Yilma and towering De Amicis. She is flung about like a child between him and Harriette, prefiguring many lifts in which the women are seized from behind and hauled about with their legs tucked up.
In the second half, the lighting (by Zeynap Kepekli) picks out brief encounters between the cast of seven. The music, a remix of minimalist composer Michael Gordon’s Timber, played on wooden strips, produces a harsher sound than the tinkling marimba. Its propulsive energy makes the partnering even more adversarial, ending with Jonas being whirled around Harriette’s body like a samurai sword.
Because Detour is the opening piece, its similarity to Alston’s Proverb (on speed) goes unremarked. Although well-crafted, Detour‘s lexicon of moves is limited, its restlessness wearying. It provides the attention-grabbing vigour that Alston’s work sometimes lacks, but there’s not much soul behind its driving force.