Artistic Director: Richard Alston
Choreography: Richard Alston, Martin Lawrance
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Richard Alston is one of the UK’s most established and best-loved contemporary choreographers. His personal history is closely-linked with that of British contemporary dance: his career starting in the late-1960s with the newly-formed London Contemporary Dance School, leading to his starting the UK’s first contemporary dance group, studying with Merce Cunningham in New York, before returning to establish himself as a teacher and choreographer. A long period at Ballet Rambert followed, for many years as Artistic Director. He formed his own company in 1994 when he became Artistic Director at The Place, where the company continue to be based. That chronology inevitably means that this is RADC’s 20th Anniversary Season. This Triple Bill (of four pieces, ironically) is chosen from a current repertoire of seven works, and offers a fitting mix of new and older work.
As already noted, Alston’s career is deeply embedded within the UK’s story of contemporary dance, however, his choreographic and artistic style remains very much based in classical technique, musicality, and narrative intention, albeit stripped down and relaxed both in physical line, staging and dramatic artifice. Inevitably, if one is a pioneer long enough, one becomes establishment.
The Triple Bill opens with a new work, Burning, choreographed by Associate Choreographer, Martin Lawrance. Set to and inspired by the Dante Sonata of Franz Liszt, played live on stage by Jason Ridgway, this explores the phenomenon of ‘Lisztomania’, and the efforts of a young countess (Nancy Nerantzi) to seek the undivided attention of the promiscuous, pursued Liszt, played by Liam Riddick. The stark, dark blue-washed bare bones of the stage – glossy black grand piano to one side – is rather beautiful. Previously, Lawrance’s work has added noticeably-different contemporary lines and shapes to the established Alston look, but this piece appears to be pure-Alston. Burning has plenty of narrative clarity and the company’s trademark detailed musicality, but somehow the supposed passion of the composer’s turbulent love life is missing from the performances, leaving the company – Riddick especially -looking very young and rather flat, although the level of skill is high. Nancy Nerantzi is a delight though.
Burning is followed (after a rather misplaced internal) with Unfinished Business, a duet by Alston set to Mozart, again played live by Ridgway. This is an exquisite piece of intricate and intense physical interplay, cleanly costumed by Rebecca Hayes and beautifully performed by Elly Braund and James Muller, who bring impressive presence, control and intensity – so the presence of the bare stage and piano fall away and the focus becomes entirely the music and movement.
Next is a major new Alston work, Rejoice in the Lamb, which considers the eccentric life and religious fervour of 18th century poet Christopher Smart, as realised by Benjamin Britten. Like Burning and Illuminations to follow, this piece is set on a bare stage (the piano now magicked away) and costumed to suggest historic context – impressions of bodices and full skirts, tunics and frock coats (by Peter Todd (Burning and Rejoice in the Lamb) and Fotini Dimou (Illuminations)). This is a largely narrative work of small scenes, driven by Britten’s cantata for four soloists and choir. Again, as with Burning, Rejoice in the Lamb lacks much sense of real passion in the performances, although Nicholas Bodych brings some presence to the rôle of Smart. For a piece about religious eccentricity and fervour set in the 1700s, it’s all a bit neat and clean and sanitised, although there is nothing lacking in the choreography.
Finally, Illuminations, a 2013-revival of a 1994 Alston work, based on the turbulent life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his short-lived affair and ultimate fracture from poet Paul Verlaine in 1870s Paris. Considering their relationship was characterised by passion and scandale and drenched in absinthe and hashish, this again seems a clean and somewhat passionless performance. Liam Riddick has the appropriate youth this time but seems to lack the dramatic weight and intensity to really bring Rimbaud to life and to carry so much of this work. Nicholas Bodych does a better job as Verlaine and Elly Braund has presence. As the Royauté Couple, James Muller and Nancy Nerantzi bring elegance and class. And yet, it feels as if Illuminations contains all the choreography it needs to be much more wonderful. Somehow it felt like a really strong piece of work performed by a slightly underpowered company: carried out rather than performed. Alston’s work is classical and narrative on one hand but dressed as contemporary on the other. Contemporary dance-neutral leaves these narratives looking underfed and drained of life.
A more-than-half-empty Lyric Theatre at the Lowry suggests that the dance appetite is shifting from what looks like the now-conservatism of Alston’s modernity – Rambert have noticeably shifted from this kind of contemporary-classical narrative-driven material in recent seasons. Although there is also a conversation perhaps to be had about dwindling dance audiences in the twin cities…
Reviewed on 10th February 2015 | Photo: Chris Nash