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Richard Alston Dance Company Upclose

Richard Alston Dance Company: 'Something to Do,' 'Lie of the Land,' 'Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms' and 'Even More'

by David Mead

June 19, 2010 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London

It is always a pleasure to watch Richard Alston’s work.  He has been at the forefront of British contemporary dance for nigh on 40 years. It’s easy to see why. Alston does more than create movement. As this programme showed, he not only makes dance of unusual richness but, as an intensely musical choreographer, makes dance that really gets at the essence of the music. In this programme, part of The Place’s Square Dances season of performances in the round, there was an added bonus. With the audience seated in just two or three rows on all four sides, they really got to see his work and his outstanding dancers up close and personal.

In his personal, on-stage introduction to the evening, Alston recalled being asked by a tutor to describe a choreographer.  His reply was, “Someone who gives a dancer something to do.” If only it was that simple! He used that comment subsequently to make “Something to Do”, a piece from 1969 and his earliest existing work. Reconstructed as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of The Place, the duet showed that he was well on the way to establishing a choreographic style, even in those early days. Accompanied by extracts of Gertrude Stein text read by Alston himself, the pairing of Hannah Kidd and Anneli Binder showed all the crisp movement and clear lines that remain his trademark. Even with text Alston seems to recognise phrasing and tone: the choreography was always in tune with the words as the dancers stopped and started, repeated and reflected each other’s movement. The piece was wonderfully engaging and suited the space perfectly. It may be 41 years old, but it looked like it was made yesterday.

First of two new pieces on the programme was Martin Lawrance’s “Lie of the Land” to Ned Rorem’s String Quartet No.4, a work in ten sections, each inspired by a Picasso painting. Much of it is relentless and very fast. It’s some of the most exhilarating dance Lawrence has created yet. The dancers cover the space at speed time and again, frequently crashing loudly to the floor as Lawrence reflects the often strident, tension filled score.

Alston’s “Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms,” a duet from 1997, also has a link to art, it being inspired by the paintings of Vermeer. It has always looked good on a conventional stage but this setting made it something special. It was like being an invisible observer on some private, intimate conversation between two people. To the strains of James Woodrow on guitar and mandolin, Charlotte Eatock and Wayne Parsons encapsulated perfectly feeling in movement as they tenderly embraced and occasionally broke apart, as if voices had temporarily been raised. Charles Balfour’s atmospheric lighting laid a moody and sensual glow on the stage throughout.

The programme was completed by Alston’s “Even More” a dynamic, fast moving and dramatic piece that explores the close contact and small signals between dancers. It’s danced to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6, composed immediately after he was forced to write the political anthem “Hail Stalin,” and Alston’s choreography reflects perfectly the anger in the score, especially in the opening section. But as exciting as it is to be right on top of the action, for once I’m not sure the setting did the work full justice. It is so energetic that a larger stage and a little more distance may well allow a better view.

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