Having discovered the joys of live theatre at the age of seven, and opera at fifteen, I came to dance relatively late at the age of nineteen. None of my friends or family had the remotest interest in it. I had always admired the concept of it enormously, but for some erroneous reason thought that it was just something that wasn’t for me. I even remember enjoying contemporary dance (although certainly not classical ballet) on TV arts programmes as a younger teenager. But it wasn’t until I saw Ballet Rambert in 1982 performing Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances that I was hooked. That was when I realised – and I still believe this today – that Dance Done Well is the finest thing you can witness on a stage. It has the power to communicate most directly strong emotions whether it be with elegance and clarity or raw savagery. Dance Done Poorly on the other hand is one of the most woeful things you can witness on a stage. But that’s another matter, and you won’t find it here.
Looking back at that Rambert programme from 1982, another piece on the menu was Night Music, choreographed by a certain Richard Alston. Ignorant me didn’t know who he was at the time, and I have to confess I have no memory whatsoever of the dance. Nevertheless, I do remember his name cropping up very frequently over the years and it was in 1997 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the Richard Alston Dance Company for the first time. By my estimate, the show we saw last night will have been our 15th time of seeing the company, not bad for what is actually their 21st season.
There was a pre-show talk, where Mr Alston spoke about the pieces and explained how they were created and what they are all about. However, as usual, we didn’t get to the theatre in time for that, so the considerations that follow in the paragraphs below about the individual dances come purely from my own reactions to what I saw on stage and what I have read in the programme and online. And if I get it wrong, sue me. (Please don’t.)
The programme started with Stronghold, a new work choreographed by Martin Lawrance, that only premiered last week at Brighton. It’s set to music by Julia Wolfe, scored to 8 double basses, and they make a thoroughly overwhelming sound; sometimes reassuring, but mainly harsh and disconcerting, with a growing sense of menace throughout. You can define Stronghold in many ways. The programme gives you some suggestions: “A fortress, a protected place, an area dominated by a particular group, a place of survival or refuge”. There’s also the play on words, with “strong hold”, which is certainly what the dancers have to do to each other, and the strong hold that a fine piece of dance can have over the hearts and minds of its audience.
I found the dance instantly captivating, showing off the athleticism of the dancers, full of high kicks and spins, constantly breaking off into subgroups and switching around the numbers and the partnerships. First one dancer will appear to take control of the group, then another, then patterns of other dancers will emerge, and it all combines in a kind of organised mayhem. You can see there are power strategies being played, changing relationships, dancers influencing each other on which move to make next. It’s all very fast and dynamic, and full of individual highlights. There is a very exciting moment, which only lasts about three seconds,when the five guys all suddenly appear at once, spinning constantly and symmetrically into the centre of the stage – that had tremendous visual impact. There was a particularly beautiful duet between Elly Braund and Nicholas Bodych where she just glides onto him and envelops him with some very sensual moves. There’s also some brilliant solo work from Ihsaan de Banya, whom I feel has developed into a world class dancer. He seems to have come to some sort of deal with Sir Isaac Newton in that when he leaps or is lifted in the air, he defies the law of gravity and seems to stay up there for ages – how does he do it? It’s a very rewarding and intensely intriguing dance.
After the first interval we saw Espresso Vivace – a world premiere no less; presumably so new that there isn’t a description of it in the programme. It’s a work for two dancers, choreographed by Richard Alston to two sonatas by Scarlatti – played, rather impishly, on the accordion; baroque by squeezebox, you might say. The arrangement gives it a delicate sense of fun which is perfectly reflected by the dancers, Jennifer Hayes and Ihsaan de Banya, both on fine form. It’s light, frothy and courtly; a little bit like a dance version of a very successful first date.
After the briefest of pauses – how quickly and silently they moved the piano into place – came Mazur, choreographed by Richard Alston and first performed in June. The Mazur of the title refers to the Polish mazurka music which accompanies it, composed by Chopin and played live on stage on the piano by Jason Ridgway. This is a really elegant and gentlemanly dance performed by Liam Riddick and Nicholas Bodych. In smart suit trousers and black velvet waistcoats, their dance suggests agreement between friends who share the same feelings about the Mazurkas and, by extension, the homeland to which they can no longer return. But by dancing side by side, and separately, and finally together, you sense there is a meeting of minds (and just possibly, bodies) in a very refined, emotionally reserved and stoic, but nevertheless expressive way. Mrs C described it as contemporary dance à la Downton Abbey. It’s a stunning piece, performed exquisitely by two of the country’s most accomplished dancers.
The final dance of the evening – the slot traditionally reserved for “crowd pleaser” – was Nomadic, first performed in January this year and choreographed by Richard Alston and Ajani Johnson-Goffe. The curtain rises to reveal four female dancers, ostensibly in their jim-jams ready for a sleepover, to the very rhythmic and vibrant sound of the Shukar Collective – it’s music that is very hard to define, but it really pulsates and is the kind of sound it’s impossible not to dance to. Nomadic is a piece into which the entire company throws themselves, as the music demands the need and desire for movement, whether that’s of the nomadic kind or simply a physical reaction to the beat. The music itself is, I think, a bit “Marmite” – I loved it, Mrs C found it slightly wearisome – but the mix of “classic” contemporary dance with hip-hop street choreography provides some really original and entertaining moves that I would guess both challenge and satisfy the dancers’ desire to create something exciting and new. I thought it was an astonishing piece, full of excitement, humour, drive and vigour, danced with tremendous commitment and I really didn’t want it to end.
The Richard Alston Dance Company remains one of the finest exponents of contemporary dance and this is a great programme that will lift your spirits, set your brain racing and fill you with admiration. After Northampton, they have five more dates touring in Autumn – at Edinburgh, Truro, Yeovil, Shrewsbury and Richmond. A must-see!