Unexpectedly, I watched the Richard Alston Dance Company’s triple bill at Sadler’s the other night with one of my brothers. He hasn’t seen much dance – apart from bits of a VHS recording of the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote that I was obsessed with as a kid. Looking back, I may also have attempted to subject him to living-room screenings of Cats the Musical – particularly the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer somersault routine – but this too was roundly mocked, the tape wrenched from the video player in favour of something more rugged and sporting, something featuring less greasepaint and synthetic fur.
Last week I realised that I still haven’t shaken that annoying desire to share my enthusiasm for dance, Cats notwithstanding, and to find it reflected by a close companion. The vestiges of sibling validation-seeking. Of course, trying to foist your own subjective wonderment onto another person is a losing game…but still…you want the person sitting next to you in the theatre (or on the sofa) to have their socks knocked off by the art form that you adore.
The problem is that Richard Alston isn’t a choreographer that delivers much in the way of showboating sock-knocking. The founding father of British contemporary dance produces works of quiet assurance, in which his dancers’ technical mastery is channelled into cool, temperate movement and patterning. The audience comes to Alston, rather than the other way around.
His latest piece, Chacony, is a case in point. It’s an homage to Benjamin Britten with a bit of attendant biography. In 1945, Britten toured Germany with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and gave recitals for survivors of the recently liberated concentration camps. Britten – a conscientious objector – was horrified by what he encountered and funnelled the trauma of his European experience into the dark dissonances of his String Quartet No. 2. As well as a personal testament, the quartet is a tribute to and reworking of Purcell’s Chacony, which Britten arranged in 1948. The latter forms the musical basis for the first section of Alston’s work. Ten dancers, clad in burgundy robes, respond to baroque formality with a courtly gestural language interwoven with reverences, eventually forming a processional v shape that arrows downstage.
This physical trope recurs in the second part of the dance, set to the last movement of Britten’s quartet. Here the dancers are dressed in muted grey-green, thrust into a discomforting sonic world, responding to its shrieking strings with uneasy duets. When the music finally modulates into the major key, they join hands and walk forwards in that tapering v shape, but pause to look back, tempering rousing triumph with the unvanquished memory of past agonies. Chacony is beautifully danced and finely textured, but seems a little bloodless. Sitting in the broiling auditorium, angry about Grenfell, inveighing against The System, I think I wanted more overt emotion to match my own. Chacony is elegant and admirable, but as a piece about grief its very English understatement swiftly becomes underwhelming. This is a fragrant physical echo chamber, a realm apart that lacks some sort of vital rawness.
Unfortunately, the same can be said of the other works on the bill. Gyspy Mixture is an Alston fave from 2004, set to tracks from Electric Gypsyland, an album of Balkan music that’s souped-up with electro beats and a fusion of worldwide influences. The opening, in which the dancers snake onstage, punctuating their undulating phrases with razor-sharp stop-starts, is a delight. From then on, a diffuse set of duets, solos and ensemble numbers ensue and the impact wanes. The dancers never get the chance to go for broke: all is controlled, tightly-managed and repetitious. Aseptic arse wiggles and hip shakes from a solo man might register as ironic references to a more flamboyant folk form, but they come across as merely embarrassing and half-hearted. Maybe it’s my vulgar side coming out, but if you’re going to start Latin-style thrusting, you may as well go Full Bruno Tonioli.
Tangent, a deconstruction of tango, by Alston’s protege Martin Lawrance, similarly transposes the technical vigour and verve of a folk form partway into the realm of academic study. It’s set to a piano arrangement of Astor Piazolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, played live onstage by Jason Ridgway. It’s a virtuoso performance, but the swelter and squeezebox vibrancy of the original composition is somewhat dulled when performed on a concert piano. From the dancers, there are allusions to scissoring kicks and flicks and brief passages in hold, but the emotion largely inheres within the spring-loaded force of the movement, the rapid-fire vehemence of well-drilled lifts and extensions. There’s little drift and langour to these taut, authoritative exchanges.
As a bonus, there’s an unexpected addition to the programme in the form of Glint, a piece for second-year students of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance set to John Cage’s Second Construction. Full of buoyant balances and shifting configurations, it’s joyfully danced by a cast of young dancers in bold colour-blocked costumes, among whom the graceful Salome Pressac-Hewitt shines especially bright.
On the bus afterwards, I was thinking about Alston’s ascetic-tinged dance and I texted my brother: “It’s a shame you didn’t see something mega.” He replied with trademark brevity: “I enjoyed it.” I read between (either side of) the lines (line). It strikes me that for all the excellence of Alston’s dancers and the craftsmanship of his choreography, there’s an absence of the emotional colour and visceral thrill that can make dance, on occasion, such a profoundly transportive form.
Richard Alston Dance Company were performing at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.