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Richard Alston Dance Company

'Roughcut', 'Lie of the Land', 'Ceremony of the Carols'

by Charlotte Kasner

February 29, 2012-- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

It is no mean feat to have been at the top of one’s game in the uncertainty of the arts world as Richard Alston has since the late ‘60s.

The opening work, “Roughcut”, was made more than two decades ago for Rambert but looks as fresh as the day it was premiered. The Company danced to a person with fluidity and vigour as the movement ebbed and flowed on several levels. The transition from floor work to middle and upper levels was seamless, punctuated by a crooked elbow here and a bent back there, with the occasional small jump. Dancers stretched and contracted, met and parted in a work that was exactly the right length to leave the audience wanting more.

Music was by the grand old man of minimalism, Steve Reich, a clarinetist and an electric guitarist playing against a tape; all fiendishly difficult, not least because of the repetition. It was perfectly suited to the work, never descending into dullness or naval gazing as many of his later imitators did and suddenly shifting key and rhythm when least expected.

Martin Lawrance’s “Lie of the Land” is another kettle of fish entirely. Relationships flare and fade to a background of Ned Rorem’s 4th String Quartet which is alternately elegiac and manic. Towards the end it seemed to quote Shostakovich’s DSCH musical signature, consciously or otherwise, which inevitably affected the interpretation. These were relationships that were clouded with tragedy and conflict, leaving the impression that all were doomed. The elegiac sections used elongated shapes and stretches, arabesques and lunges. The faster sections were almost antagonistic, dancers almost bouncing off each other.

The final work of the evening was on personally familiar territory as I sang Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” for a group of dancers from London Contemporary Dance at St John’s Smith Square more than thirty years ago. From memory, the dance then was vigorous and had a Brueghel-like design. Alston's latest work, premiered earlier this month could not have been more different. Dancers were dressed in white trousers and tunics in various shades if red from scarlet to maroon. Like so many holly berries they sketched out the nativity story, at one stage raising a bench or manger symbolically to form a cross. It was difficult to appreciate the dance fully as the purple-clad choristers were ranged across the back of the stage. The clashing of colours and utterly unsubtle conducting of the choirmaster was distracting. Why not arrange the choristers to one side, as was the excellent harpist?

Indeed the choristers were the biggest disappointment of the evening. The opening Hodie was somewhat ragged and sibilant. Maybe it was nerves, but the conductor’s style was so extravagant that it is difficult to believe that they couldn’t follow him. Tuning was poor and breath control lacking in places at first, although it improved. The opening solo was as flat as a pancake and sounded unsupported. I heard more than one member of the audience muttering that they would have preferred a good recording; they had a point.

It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise invigorating evening and bodes well for the second programme. This company is a delight and good on them for surviving the vicissitudes of arts funding for so long.

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