October 16, 2018
“Aaaahhhh” came a very contented sigh from a lady behind me at the end of Mid-Century Modern, which opened this evening by the Richard Alston Dance Company. Quite so; and that was only the start of what was an immensely enjoyable programme of dance.
Mid-Century Modern is made up of extracts from Alston’s fifty years of choreography. They are not in performed in chronological order (it’s not a history lesson as he says), but have been stitched together in contrasting order.
It got off to a cracking start with Elly Braund and Nicholas Shikkis in a succulent duet from Fever, made in 2001. The warm music of Monteverdi wraps itself around the dancers like a comfy duet. Nowhere Slowly, from 1970, is Alston’s earliest surviving dance. Jennifer Hayes showed wonderful clarity of line as she circled and darted around the stage, drawing shapes, often circles, with the whole body.
Blue Schubert Fragments is another early work, this time from 1972. Danced to the adagio from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, it’s full of flowing movement. It’s fascinating to watch different relationships emerge organically as the monochrome costumed dancers constantly come together in different ways. That’s another thing about Alston. His dances are about real people dancing together. The dance may be pure movement to music sometimes but you never, ever, feel you are watching something abstract.
The Cunningham influence is very obvious in Rainbow Bandit (1977), hardly surprising as it was made just after Alston had returned from studying in New York. Full of architectural shapes and dynamic, it has all Cunningham’s clarity but with a gorgeous lightness and flow. Even when danced the silence, as here, Alston’s work has a beautiful rhythm.
After the elegant Joshua Harriette had stunned everyone as a vision in blue in the surrounding blackness is a dance from Shimmer (2004), Mid-Century Modern closed in upbeat mood with Signal of a Shake, premiered in 2000. Playful, slightly quirky and full of smiles, it’s about Handel’s music and the sheer joy of dancing; a joy that you can’t help but feel too as you sit and watch. Just for good measure you get everything twice: fast, then very fast!
After that tasting plate of a starter came the meat of the evening. Martin Lawrance’s Detour is set to the puling percussion of Michael Gordon’s Timber, remixed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. From the off there is a tension about the dance which is increasingly complex. The best is saved until last, a thrilling duet for Monique Jonas and Harriette. It’s all complimented by Zeynep Kepepli’s clever lighting that fragments as it falls on the floor beneath the dancers feet.
Steve Reich’s Proverb, based around the mediaeval-like chanted words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life,” from his 1946 work Culture and Value, is cool and serene. Alston’s eponymously titled dance is as carefully crafted as the work of those who toiled building the huge cathedrals of the Middle Ages, which he says the score made him think of.
Alston’s new Brahms Hungarian is ten short dances to the composer’s arrangement for piano of his popular Hungarian Dances, played live by the super Jason Ridgway. The gypsy rhythms, sometimes grand, sometimes playful, always expressive. Alston’s dance hints at the music’s folk origins but is often quite balletic (there is even a bourrée on three-quarter pointe). It always matches the ever-changing tempo of the music as it zips along with just the occasional pause to catch breath. Among my favourites were a light, almost skippy duet for Jennifer Hayes and Jason Tucker that was a conversation in movement. A special mention here for Fotini Dinou’s swirling dresses for the female dancers, the single layer of tuile on top of the light floral fabric beneath giving them a beautifully airy quality.
The evening opened with an enjoyable curtain raiser featuring eight committed young dancers from Northampton School for Boys performing Lost Child, choreographed by Alison Clinton, inspired by the story of Peter Pan.
This was two hours of dance that’s as good as it gets. I could have immediately watched it all again. Alston’s ensemble has a number of new dancers this year. You wouldn’t know. They looked in fine fettle, with Braund standing out for her speed and lightness, and Jonas for her power and grace. How unfortunate then, that we only have this season and next to enjoy them before the company closes in 2020 (read more here), another scalp for Arts Council policy and those who see no place for mature choreographers.
The Richard Alston Dance Company continues on tour. Visit www.richardalstondance.com for dates and venues.