Richard Alston Dance Company @ Sadler’s Wells, London

To Dance and Skylark
Choreography by Martin Lawrence

Movements From Petrushka
Choreography by Richard Alston

Choreography by Richard Alston
Richard Alston’s choreography is always a great pleasure to watch – lyrical, athletic, fluid and musical.

This programme showcases his considerable talent and in particular one aspect of that, which is the versatility to shape pleasing dance around a wide range of music, mood and theme.

However, the piece which perhaps appears the most typical of Alston’s work at its best is in fact made instead by Martin Lawrance, who currently holds the position of rehearsal director and who has made a number of works for the company in recent years.
The show opens with the London premiere of To Dance and Skylark, a substantial piece of abstract dance set to the second and third Brandenburg concerti. The theme inspiring the work’s title comes from a similar era to the baroque music to which it is set, ‘To Dance and Skylark’ being a command given to seamen on sailing ships to come up on deck and exercise, using climbing the rigging (“to Skylark”) as part of their workout, this being to combat cabin fever and keep the crew fit.

The work is very much a thing of two parts, each having their own music, colouring, pace and mood. The first section of the work, performed to the second concerto, has the dancers dressed in an aquatic combination of shimmering silver, turquoise and grey-blue, with toning lighting, as the maritime mood is set. The costumes of a loose top reminiscencent slightly of a sweatshirt and tightfitting toning Lycra shorts underscore the ‘fitness’ theme, and also complement the dancers’ movements without being distracting. After initial phase involving a sizeable group, circling, breaking into pairs and subgroups before regrouping, a slow section emerges in which a longing and poignant duet is played out, perhaps suggesting homesickness when away at sea.

Suddenly the mood changes as there is a dramatic entrance of a single red-clad male, who brings with him a new and vigorous mood. He is soon joined by other dancers in the same red-orange costumes (these being the same style as those from the earlier section, but in a completely different colour way, which instantly indicates a change of mood and pace), and this new mood is reflected in matching lighting and the faster music of the third concerto.The dancers combine variously in large and small groups as the work progresses, interspersed with brief solos and duets , but instead of the fast tutti rondo one was perhaps expecting, there is instead a surprise ending. This 2009 work, first performed at The Octagon, Yeovil in February 2009, was very well received by an enthusiastic Sadler’s Wells’ audience, and the dancers were joined on stage by choreographer Martin Lawrance to fulsome applause.

After the first interval, both mood and style change dramatically as this relatively abstract opening piece was followed by work which is strongly narrative. The music moves forward by a century as Richard Alston uses Stravinsky’s Movements from Petrushka, played live on stage by a solo pianist, to portray the mental breakdown of Nijinsky who created the Petrushka role in the original Diaghilev production, for which the original backdrop has been used after loving restoration. This work is poignant and emotionally powerful; it shows Alston, who is perhaps best known for lyrical abstract dance, to be equally at home in narrative work.

The use of movement to mimic both physical convulsion and emotional alienation is skilful. This work features on only a limited number of tour dates, it calls for a wide stage and made the most of the state-of-the-art performance facilities of the new Sadler’s Wells. This revival of the 1994 work is with the generous bequest of the late Sir John Drummond, perhaps best known as Controller of Radio Three and Director of the Proms, but also a great authority on Diaghilev.

The third and final work again brought a dramatic change of pace, mood and tone with the pulsating rhythms of Terry Riley’s minimalism. Best known for the classic In C, although sounding very up to date and modern, Riley was a seminal figure of the 1960s musical scene and one of the founding figures of minimalism. Colours of neon pink, indigo purple, lime green, silvery white and stark black create a modern, almost techno, mood in both lighting and costumes. Coloured light picks out a square on the stage like the dancefloor of a nightclub. The dance, the music and the staging creates a seamless whole in a way which is so characteristic of Alston — who demonstrates his ability to achieve this across a very varied repertoire. It is perhaps this is versatility which is his consummate skill.

The Richard Alston Dance Company will be at the Brighton Dome on 16-17 March.

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