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Richard Alston Dance Company - 'Fever,' 'Shimmer,' 'Gypsy Mixture'

Compositionally challenged

by Dean Speer

January 20, 2006 -- Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle

I had heard of the Richard Alston Dance Company solely by its good reputation, but had never seen them myself , and so was particularly looking forward to their debut visit to the Northwest.

The good news is that it’s clear the eponymous dancemaker is serious about his craft. The company is made up of beautiful dancers, and it was refreshing to be able to enjoy classic modern/contemporary dance.

The bad news is, that, like so many choreographers, Mr. Alston needs to further study, employ and deploy classic compositional tools of the trade. My main compositional complaint would beis that he employs unison too much of the time. When he does use the entire ensemble of dancers, it’s almost without exception having them move as a unit, doing the same thing, same side, same timing, same emphasis, same speed, same level, same...well, you get it. Unison should be used sparingly and only for a concluding effect.  My other complaint would be dynamics. His pacing is all too even. While
his choreographic mentor is reported to be Merce Cunningham, Cunningham's work is all about dynamics while Alston seems to have missed this lesson.

Part of the reason the first two pieces felt too similar to each other was pacing: both moved at the same pace –pieces were made up of movement phrases performed at approximately the same rate of speed. This had the effect of dulling our otherwise eager eyes. I’d have to see them again, but I’m pretty sure that if I were to aurally cut out the music, we’d be seeing Alston having his dancers move in square phrases of four, – and all seemed seeming so evenly measured. He needs to break up his phrases and the way in which these they are developed, and to contrast or “go against” the music sometimes – to add “tension” to his visuals.

Another challenge – to the audience – audience was with programing. The first two pieces – “Fever” and “Shimmer” – were too similar in palette and look to really show off and contrast against each other. It would have been better to have had the closer, “Gypsy Mixture,” in the middle. “Shimmer” did have live music – a pianist – for its Ravel score of solo piano works. Hooray!

One of the principal reasons “Gypsy Mixture” came across as so much more kinetic and lively was not just the music, but that Mr. Alston was inspired to have his dancers move in more rhythmically interesting ways with more contrasts. The music itself probably provided the goal posts for him to follow.

The other good news is that he’s an inventive choreographer who comes up with interesting phrases and motifs. However, I would also encourage him to get over his Merce Cunningham background/influence and really to try to find his own voice. While he did have many things that appeared original, there were times I felt like I was watching a moving copy of a copy of an image. This was also reflected in how the dancers moved- like . Cunningham dancers but with an English accent.

All in all, the Richard Alston Dance Company is A a company of lovely dancers with dancing choreography whose in which the total does not equal of sum of its parts.

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