Richard Alston Dance Company
Sadler’s Wells, Dance Umbrella 2002
In this programme it’s the closing piece that really excites the audience, and it’s one that takes its lead from a dramatically different dance form – a form that thrives on all the things contemporary dance is not. 'Touch and Go' gives Astor Pizzolla’s tango music a new partner and thrives on the passion in his spirited and melancholy melodies.
Some people complain of contemporary dance that the dancers don’t connect with the audience, or with each other, always keeping their eyes fixed somewhere in the middle distance. In this case, as soon as the dancers’ eyes meet at the opening of the piece there’s an instant electricity, a story behind their stares, a stormy history or a set of possibilities fizzing in the air.
Traditionally, female tango dancers would wear steep heels, and short, figure hugging dresses which directly influence the steps and the dancer’s carriage. Alston’s dancers have bare feet and wear loose satin trousers and floating Emanuel Ungaro tops. Their movement betrays this emancipation; toes point to the ceiling and torsos rock, playing with the distance between partners.
Traditionally, the male dancer decides on the direction of movement by making a subtle signal on the woman’s back, but here the balance of power is even-handed. And there are a variety of groupings; trios, male duets and the company all dancing together, carried by Piazzolla’s plunging accents and seductive syncopations. It’s Alston’s unmistakably balletic sensibilities with a little latin hip.
What makes us connect so easily with a dance tradition like tango is that it’s a folk form, and it’s earthy humanity is universal. In a way, the same is found is the opening piece of the programme, 'Stampede'. Although its medieval melodies were composed 600 years before Piazzolla, their purpose is the same; social spectacle and a soundtrack to collective ritual. These 14th century Italian dances have an audibly Moorish influence and are played live on stage by the Dufay Collective.
The Trotto is a leaping dance and the male members of the company, dressed in elvish pale blue, barely touch the ground. They spring effortlessly with a playful air and clean, weightless leaps. The Istampitta was originally a kind of stamping dance. Here footsteps are tied to the rhythmic pulse honouring the most basic principle of dance, and our most basic connection to music.
Patterns are drawn on the stage, the company dance in social ceremony and characters come forth to spin their stories – the male solos in particular using stealth and strength to powerful effect.
Atmospheric lighting throws dappled moonlight through tree branches, or something equally fairytale, but despite trite connotations, there is a real intensity here, at the heart of the music. These tunes may have been composed nearly 700 years ago but they still have the ability to grasp a heartstring, conjure far off lands, or tell a haunting tale. As the piece progresses, the music is the momentum. LIke Piazzolla’s tango it has a real passion and humanity, and a darker side, that in this case perhaps the dance doesn’t quite express.
In 'Rumours, Visions', the dark side of humanity is openly on display. Based on Arthur Rimbaud’s poems ‘Les Illuminations’ and danced to Britten’s music of the same name, Martin Lawrence plays the Rimbaud role; inspired, tormented and visionary. Lawrence is a brilliant dancer, but one who sometimes seems too immaculate to bring real soul to his performance. This is happily countered by Britten’s sublime score and we are easily caught up in the drama.
Divided into short movements (faithful to the text) there are frequent entrances and exits with dancers scattering in every direction, errant, ever after something. Characters come and go, move through duets and at one point form a striking connected chain of bodies, but Rimbaud remains central and essentially apart.
The piece is full of Alston signatures, it was created back in 1993 (before the formation of the company) and evidently demonstrates some of Alston’s essential choreographic principles. He seems to be drawn to beauty and purity, and has impeccable taste – in his dancers (like Lawrence), in his classically influenced movement, and particularly in his musical choices. His work is always immensely, if subtly, satisfying to watch, but occasionally feels a touch too tasteful. When Alston adds a sense of immediacy and a dash of extra spirit, as in tonight’s finale, this show really begins to sparkle.