Richard Alston Dance Company: Alston at Home

Posted: June 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company: Alston at Home

Richard Alston Dance Company, Alston At Home, The Place, June 10

Nancy Nerantzi, Elly Braund and Oihana Vesga Bujanin Overdrive (photo: Chris Nash)

Nancy Nerantzi, Elly Braund and Oihana Vesga Bujan in Overdrive (photo: Chris Nash)

As a portrait of Richard Alston in the twentieth year of his company, Alston At Home shows his recent and current preoccupations with just one short work to anchor the perception of change over time. Without the revival of the miniature, Brisk Singing Duet danced by University of Michigan students Maeve McEwen and Michael Parmelee to the music of Rameau, the program shows an unfamiliar landscape on both the musical and the choreographic front. There are six works in all, three by Alston, one by Associate Director Martin Lawrance, one by Joseph Toonga and one by company dancer Ihsaan de Banya (the last two commissioned by The Place). Of the six works four are world premières.

Having just that afternoon seen the Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty (highly recommended), what immediately strikes me in all these works is not simply the bareness of the stage but the blandness of the costumes. When Alston chooses to portray two Polish expatriate friends dancing to Chopin’s mazurkas in Mazur the inelegant costumes — a wan-coloured suggestion of a waistcoat by Peter Todd over army green chinos — immediately temper the emotional connection between the dancers and their context. If these are two friends ‘sharing what they love and what they feel they have lost’, their camaraderie is rather strait-laced; no vodka shots here, no dark passions or even live ones: the odd touch here and the odd look there are all that connect them. Take away the idea of Polish expatriates altogether and you have an interesting double concerto for two accomplished dancers (Liam Riddick and guest Jonathan Goddard) whose connection to the mazurkas (played onstage by Jason Ridgway on an elegant grand piano) is primarily through its rhythms rather than through any emotional content with which Chopin imbued his music. What is left is their angular, swirling movement and the precision of their musical phrasing in an otherwise bloodless setting.

The third work by Alston is a restaging by Lawrance of Overdrive (2006) set to Terry Riley’s score Keyboard Studies #1. It is, as Alston writes, ‘one of a series of works I made responding to the excitement and energy of pure rhythm.’ It requires you to sit back and concentrate which, as the sixth work and following the second intermission, is a tough call. But then none of the works this evening belong in that category of program ‘closer’ because they all congregate around similar pallid visual settings and emotionally purified choreography without beginnings or ends. Riley’s score — and Alston’s choreography — starts at a running pace and continues relentlessly till it suddenly stops. There is an intellectual rigour here, a physical argument in which Alston follows Riley’s structure, but the appearance of Overdrive is not so much paired down as dry.

Lawrance created his new work, Opening Gambit, as a birthday offering for Alston’s anniversary but it is choreographed on the muscular music of Julia Wolfe’s Dark Full Ride Part 1. It seems an odd coupling, one that celebrates Alston’s rigour but falls short of being a celebratory work. Lawrance has tamed the music rather than letting its natural force get away; he is helped in this by the capacity of Riddick to dance precisely on the musical beat without losing any detail (amongst the women Oihana Vesga Bujan shares this gift). Riddick brings a stillness to the heart of each movement, however quick, that gives each shape its full value. The opening line of ten dancers leaning nonchalantly against the bare back wall under Zeynep Kepekli’s lighting is the one inspired scenic element of the evening.

Ihsaan de Banya’s new work, Rasengan, begins as if he and the two other huddled dancers (Vesga Bujan and Nicholas Bodych) are standing in an underwater current, growing their small hand gestures to whole body undulations. The score by Ryoji Ikeda gives little for the dancers to feed off; the sound and the movement glide along on separate parallel paths. De Banya has pliant material to work with and brings out their physical attributes — Bodych’s never-ending back bend is an image that remains — but he is less inventive with the space in which they move and the dynamic patterns they create. He might want to take himself out of his future work so he can see the broader dimensions of his choreography.

Joseph Toonga’s Unease sets up a spatial intrigue immediately with de Banya alone in a corner talking to himself about something serious while four others stand in the opposite corner watching him. As he slowly sidles off stage deep in thought, the quartet moves as a counterbalance in a solo for four dancers that in its physical isolations has the appearance of muscular angst within a classical dynamic. Unease seems to trace the assimilation of de Banya into, and his influence on the quartet; Nancy Nerantzi is instrumental in her duet with him in winding him closer to the group until they are all moving together. Mirroring the beginning, the quartet with de Banya now sidles off in slow motion while one woman distances herself to dance alone but she too is drawn back into their rhythm before the work finishes in slow motion lighting.

Unease suffers from being too similar in feeling (though not in detail) to the other works on the program. Alston at Home is broad in solicitude for the future direction of the company but on this showing the forms of creative endeavour show a remarkable sameness. The musical choices may be one factor but there is also an over-reliance in the choreography on the purely physical nature of dance which under-exploits the musical and spiritual qualities of the dancers.

Richard Alston: 20th Anniversary Performances

Posted: February 3rd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston: 20th Anniversary Performances

Richard Alston Dance Company, 20th Anniversary Performance, Sadler’s Wells, January 26

 Nicholas Boydich and full company in Rejoice in the Lamb

The idea of celebrating 20 years of his company with a retrospective program of highlights is not, I imagine, one that Richard Alston would countenance. But clearly a lot of careful thought has gone into the program at Sadler’s Wells — modestly titled ‘20th Anniversary Performances’ — that says less about the past than the present. Alston has created a new work, Rejoice in the Lamb, which receives its London première, and associate choreographer Martin Lawrance has his own London première of Burning in addition to Madcap from 2012. The remaining slot on the program is filled with the world première of Nomadic, a joint adventure in which Alston shares the choreography with dancer Ajani Johnson-Goffe. Those who prefer a more concentrated Alston program will have to wait for the company’s upcoming UK tour.

At the end of 2013 Alston produced an evening of work that celebrated the music of Benjamin Britten to mark the composer’s centenary. It was as much a celebration of Alston’s choreography as it was of Britten’s music because their sensibilities seem so well matched. Rejoice in the Lamb, which Alston created perhaps in that same flush of inspiration to Britten’s 1943 setting of Christopher Smart’s poem of the same name, opens under a pale blue light with a circle of dancers woven head to toe on the floor and a pensive Nicholas Bodych crouching like a luminous gargoyle to one side. He is Christopher Smart, 18th century poet and man of fervent religious faith who was susceptible to bouts of depression; his sustenance was music and poetry. He also had a steady companion in Jeoffry, his cat, danced here in tabby colours by Ihsaan de Banya. Smart and Jeoffry are the only two named characters; the remaining cast of five women and three men are possibly an expression of the joy and simplicity of Smart’s mind. As soon as Bodych begins to move, the measure of Alston’s own peace of mind is clear; there is a quiet economy in Bodych’s gestures, unadorned and free, that extends to the entire cast, giving Rejoice in the Lamb a serenity that the pastel colours of the costumes by Peter Todd and the lighting by Zeynep Kepekli enhance. Alston is evidently still in love with making dances and his dancers respond with a clarity that is a pleasure to see. This is quiet dancing with moments of stillness and humour; Alston does not have a repertoire of difficult steps but they are precise and when danced well, as they are by the entire company, they move effortlessly with the music.

Martin Lawrance’s Burning is a piece in the style of Alston but without his most endearing qualities. Set to Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata played on a grand piano by Amit Yahav, Burning is about the composer’s relationship with Countess Marie d’Agoult (Nancy Nerantzi) and his many other liaisons with adoring women. As soon as Liam Riddick (as Liszt) begins his introductory solo it is clear we are in for a bumpy ride; Lawrance’s choreography is simply not on the same plane as the music. Not only that but he translates Liszt’s relationships into bruising, harsh duets that read as serious abuse. Lawrance may have historical evidence to justify it but if he does he is imposing this on the music and it jars. Gestures and dance are separated from the music, solos begin without narrative intent and there’s just too much choreography that gets lost on the floor. Burning may well refer to Liszt’s passion for Marie but it is expressed in the music rather than in the dance.

Nomadic is Alston’s first-ever joint choreographic venture, but his stake in it is unclear. Co-choreographer Ajani Johnson-Goffe, who also dances in it, has an idiosyncratic way of moving that separates him from the rest of the cast; when he dances the choreography makes sense, but when his movements are embodied by others it doesn’t. Alston’s dancers weave their patterns and their duets tirelessly but the energy of Nomadic is drawn down by an internal gaze that give the impression the dancers are listening to the music of Shukar Collective through earphones. What is missing is a sense of cohesion, that intangible element that nomadic tribes must cultivate in their wandering lives.

Alston offers the place of honour on the program to Lawrance’s Madcap, set to ‘possibly two of the most challenging pieces I have ever tackled’ by Julia Wolfe (Lick and Believing). Just as with Liszt’s Dante Sonata, Lawrance’s choreographic form tends to write over the music with his ideas rather than delve into its structure and some of the elements that weaken Burning reappear here: a concentration on highly physical male solos (for de Banya and Riddick) in a company of lyrical women, an overdependence on floor work and an unsettling violence in a duet between Nerantzi and Riddick. This is not a natural closer to an evening of dance, let alone to a 20th anniversary of what Alston and his dancers have achieved. Whatever the reasons for the order of program, the memory of Alston’s beatific Rejoice in the Lamb eclipses what follows.







Dance GB: Olympic fever

Posted: July 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance GB: Olympic fever

Dance GB, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, July 6, 19:30

From the press release: The UK’s three national dance companies – Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet and National Dance Company Wales, will perform together for the first time in an Olympian inspired program featuring three specially commissioned works from leading contemporary choreographers.

In a parallel project with sixty young dancers from Scotland, England and Wales, three separate but related works involving both dance and parkour have been created in their respective countries and spliced into a heartwarming film by Nic Sandilands called Dancing Parallel which is shown at the beginning of the evening.

The setting in the big tent at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is more like a large Punch and Judy show, with a faded blue velvet curtain drawn across the broad stage with a space above for a giant puppet master. In front of the tiered seating is a carpeted area for audience members to sit on pillows, blankets, inflatable mattresses or cushions. The tent flaps of the main entrance let in plenty of light, even when closed, but when the film starts it is just dark enough.

We see a hand reaching down to retrieve a partially submerged, wooden school chair out of the water and a young Welsh boy runs with it to a deserted building where he sets it down on a stone floor as a pommel horse and dancing partner. Welcome to the art of the sport of parkour. We see the boy’s legs, arms and torso arching over the chair during his routine, and when he finally sits, the camera pulls back to reveal his face. Cut to a windswept expanse of beach at low tide near Aberdeen. A boy gathers a chair from the wet sand and takes it to join his friends who have found similar chairs, which they form into a choreographic obstacle course on the beach. Cut to inside a dimly lit concrete basement, where these same friends put on a dance performance (choreographed by Emma-Jane McHenry and Lorraine Jamieson) for an audience of empty chairs. Cut to the same space with all the kids sitting in the chairs watching an empty space. Cut to an industrial, dockland warehouse in east London. The now familiar wooden chairs are bobbing in the water and a hand fishes them out one by one, passing them up a line of kids on a metal stairway into a vaulted brick space. We see the kids assimilating their dance movement phrases (choreographed by Laura Harvey, Danielle Jones and Hayley Arundel) then performing them all together for another audience of empty chairs, to the sounds of squeaking rubber soles. Cut to a close-up of an eye, that of the Welsh boy at the beginning. A fully expressed, sometimes wild and always poetic dance with chairs follows, choreographed by Jem Treays to street accordion continuum in the old NatWest Building in Cardiff. It begins with simple seated moves in unison, followed by a passage of movement around and over the chairs, then the kids lay them down, and a couple of boys dance with the equilibrium of the chairs on their feet. The performance is interrupted by the sound of an intruder; all the kids scatter to the recesses of the abandoned lobby. One hopes they will all have the courage to return to continue their dance.

I scoured the program for evidence of a clear mandate for the creation of the three commissioned works by Scottish Ballet, Dance Company Wales and English National Ballet, but if there is one, it is not elaborated. Christopher Bruce is unique in proposing to celebrate the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee together, and his Dream “is also a celebration of the sheer enjoyment of highly physical movement in all its forms.” For Martin Lawrance, choreographer of Run For It for Scottish Ballet, “The Olympics – like any live dance performance – challenges and celebrates an individual’s physicality and mindset. How do you just push that effort? How do you get to the next step, and the next, and the next? And if that ties into Einstein’s vision of dancers as God’s athletes, it also connects into our own lives whatever we do. You just have to get out there, run for it – and hope to win through on your journey.” Itzik Galili was more elusive when asked what the link was between the Olympics and his work for English National Ballet, And the Earth Shall Bear Again: “I feel like I am in the Olympic Games, just being in such a company!…2012 is a year of many beginnings, with potential for new world records…To me, it’s like the earth having its birth again.”

The work takes its title from one of the pieces for prepared piano by John Cage, composed in 1942, that Galili has used as his inspiration. There are various recordings, with a range of percussive tones, but the one used here by Boris Berman is more athletic than most and the amplification for this performance gives a particularly bass, almost distorted tone. Other works by John Cage used by Galili are Prelude for Meditation, The Perilous Night (4 & 6), Primitive, 3 Dances for prepared piano (excerpts), A Chance Operation, and Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos, Dance #1.

Outgoing artistic director of English National Ballet, Wayne Eagling, intended to make Galili’s work the final offering on the program, as performed in Theatre Royal, Glasgow and Cardiff’s Wales Millenium Centre, but for technical reasons here in the tent it has been put first. Reading in the program how Galili uses light as a choreographic tool, I wonder where the lighting is going to come from as I don’t see any sophisticated lighting rig in the tent and there is evidently no fly tower. When the curtain slides open, the mystery is solved: designer Yaron Abulafia’s rig is an integral part of the stage design, some of the more sculptural elements being in plain view. I can see why you wouldn’t want to be setting this up during an intermission.

The stage is filled with atmospheric fog and we are immediately drawn into the murky darkness. What Abulafia has created is remarkable: a theatrical black hole from which dancers emerge into the light, or recede into latency at the will of the lighting designer and choreographer. As our eyes search for familiar form, we see the back of a dancer, too indistinct to know if it is male or female. This figure backs towards us into the diffused, triangular downlight, one fifth position at a time, the feet as closely spaced as the keys on a piano. The costume (designed by Natasja Lansen) is androgynous, worn by both male and female dancers: a black, transparent, sleeveless, net jerkin with its hem barely covering the buttocks. Legs and arms are bare, and reflect the light, while the torso absorbs it. The figure emerging from the mist is Esteban Berlanga. On the first brutally amplified note of Cage’s score, a girl walks across downstage from right to left. A line of dancers cross in the other direction, like a keyboard advancing across the stage, leaving a dancer in the centre with Berlanga, duplicating his movement. The line returns, sweeping away the first dancer and leaving another in her place. Others arrive; there are six on stage who are then joined by another twelve to complete the full complement of eighteen. The percussive nature of the score lends itself to fierce physicality and staccato movement. On two consecutive notes a girl jumps and is caught in the boy’s arms, like two pieces of a puzzle locking together, a movement repeated five times with five other couples. The limbs, because they reflect the light and are used in exaggerated extension, are the principal elements of the dance. Faces are not revealed as clearly, adding to the effect of a gesticulating forest of limbs emanating from mobile trunks. The girls are on point, accentuating the already attenuated lines. The movement is predominantly linear, launched in all directions, so when Nancy Osbaldeston pulls off a beautifully controlled multiple turn, sculpted to perfection in the light, its spiral form takes the breath away. If there is a sense of the title in the movement, it is this emergence of form from chaos.

If the energetic, athletic movement is a constant, Galili modulates it with a succession of male and female duets and trios – although the ultra-flexible movement of overextended legs and arms common to both male and female dancers blurs the sexual distinction – and with interesting dynamic juxtapositions: a mass of movement pauses leaving one girl dancing alone. Towards the end, Berlanga returns to a solo after which he is engulfed once more in the vapour from which he emerged, and a girl walks quickly from left to right across the stage. In the end is the beginning.

In Christopher Bruce’s Dream, the opening is all heart and amateur athletics from a bygone era: a tug of war, egg-and-spoon races, wheelbarrow races, leap-frog, three-legged races and sack races, overlaid with the sound of children’s excited voices. One couple takes a tumble and gets back up to continue the fun (they do it again later, so it’s not an accident). The backdrop is divided horizontally into two sections. The top three quarters is black and the bottom strip is white. All the races take place in front of it, giving the impression of an early home 8mm movie being spooled from one side of the stage to another. Guy Hoare’s lighting adds a touch of faded yellow to the action to complete the effect. This is Bruce looking back on his first memories of the celebrations and street parties for both the 1952 jubilee and coronation the following year, the only work on the program to anchor itself in a specific time and place. As the opening music finishes, one man is caught half way across the stage in his sack race; a poignant moment, as if the era had suddenly passed and he was unsure where he was going. After the festive events of the day, all the participants are standing in the street looking out at us – the future – dreaming of a better world.

The black backdrop descends, covering the white filmstrip: this is the real thing, set to the last movement of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Bruce takes simple body moves like stretching, running in place, rubbing shoulders, wave patterns and cartwheels as phrases that will be developed throughout the work. Four boys enter, good sports running around, practicing sprint starts, then joining together, arms around the waist, walking forward towards us. We hear a crowd roar at the scoring of a goal. The men run off, and Camille Giraudeau enters, her long red hair accentuated in the circle of light. To the rhythm of the introductory phrases of Ravel’s Boléro, Gaudreau shakes out her feet and legs. Such disarmingly natural movement makes this over-familiar music fresh again. Four other girls join, each performing a different exercise that develops into dance movement. Gaudreau, with Ravel, repeats the opening phrases, and the five girls dance together in a beautiful, musically precise, off-balance variation. The boys return; a duo of kicking and boxing morphs into wrestling and deliciously into a waltz before another boy breaks it up. Two girls are joined by a third in a bowling motif, after which they link arms and swing their hips as they sway upstage. Four boys play football; the girls lie on the ground in a circle kicking their legs in the crawl; two boys fence and shake hands; a basketball gesture becomes a dance phrase with more swinging hips, then a duo enters skating, in an inevitable reference to Torvill and Deane’s gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics. Two boys sprint across the back to the trombone solo. A trio of two boys and a girl, then all six girls build the physical complexity of the dance with the music, though Bruce pulls back to repeat that opening phrase once again. The javelin throw is followed by a group of four men in a marathon walk, handkerchiefs on head, which develops into a brilliant canon of girls who then pose while the sparky Naomi Tadevossian performs a lightning solo, leading the girls into a line. Now four men jump and a team of oarsmen cross the stage, two girls spin, the four men hurdle and the crescendo culminates in a triple black flip to a rock solid gymnastic pose, arms raised in celebration. There is applause, as the Boléro has ended, but there is an epilogue, to Grace Williams’ upbeat second movement from her Penillion, Allegro (and how) con fuoco. The men and women return to the street sports, to the sack races, the egg and spoon races, the three-legged race (the couple falls again), wheelbarrow races, and leapfrogging. In a final fling, eggs are tossed – and caught – before the street party winds up and the participants resume their opening positions in the dusk, looking dreamily out and up at the audience. Dream is full of heart, infused with a sense of humour and a nostalgic sense of sportsmanship without being soppy, and not so literally sporty as to be imitative, but rather celebrating the proximity of sport and dance.

Martin Lawrance’s Run For It is aptly named and with a score like John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony the wind is behind the dancers, blowing them along relentlessly. There are apparently subtle quotations from the Olympic sports though I only noticed the swimming gestures. It is is a very musical piece, though because of Adams’ pace and because Lawrance seems to have choreographed most of the accents in the many layers of music, the dancers have to maintain an inexorable momentum to keep up. As in Galili’s work, the movements of men and women are equally athletic and supple, with the girls on pointe, though the speed-enhancing costumes (by Yumiko Takeshima) clearly differentiate the sexes. The slow movement provides a respite, musically and choreographically, with a series of duets and trios with swapping partners on contrasted sequences – one lifting, the other turning – to the same music. Arabesques and deep lunges flow nicely with lovely lines, the technique is clean and the rhythms bright, but aerial shapes are less interesting. When four men lift one of the women, she appears (perhaps understandably) more manhandled than partnered and her shape is lost. Once the men have put her down and left, she recovers in a solo to deserved applause before the finale kicks in. A man’s flying entrance heralds a succession of energetic entrances but the movement vocabulary begins to run low on inspiration and the energy seems to flag, though the dancers regain their control of the score supported by what sounds like an entire farmyard of instrumentation with an energizing dose of percussion. By the time the rapid marching band of cymbals starts up, all the dancers are on stage, finishing in a tight group, with one man circling around them and dancing off at a tangent into the wings; a winding down, as in the music.

The sculptural stage design by the 2011 Turner Prize winner, Martin Boyce, incorporates a Greek column to remind us of the origin of the games. The column, which commands a good portion of the stage, supports a roof of interlocking, transparent forms like a collection of identical 1960’s white lampshades. Indeed, the lighting (by Charles Balfour) is diffused through this honeycomb ceiling, lending it various suffused shades of red and blue. Its height from the stage – perhaps a function of the tent’s limited vertical space – tends to press down on the dancers and Adams’ music belongs to another era and another kind of landscape: an odd contest in which there is no clear winner.