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Richard Alston: British dance in transition

Alston dancers: high velocity and sheer physicality Credit: Richard Alston Dance Company

Richard Alston has a unique place as a trailblazer in British performing arts. Perhaps more than any other figure of the second half of the 20th century, his career has represented the growth of contemporary dance in that country, starting in 1969 as one of the original students at the newly formed London School of Contemporary Dance, Britain’s first such institution.

A few years later, Alston became director of Strider, the country’s first independent, i.e., not state sponsored, dance company. He left for New York in 1975 for a few years of study at the school of the great American dancemaker Merce Cunningham. Returning to the UK, Alston became the resident choreographer, then artistic director of Ballet Rambert, helping to guide that revered troupe to a revived life as a contemporary ballet company.

In 1994, he took up artistic directorship at The Place, the center for contemporary dance in London where he remains, and in that same year launched his own eponymous dance troupe. It was this group that was seen at Meany Hall for three programs this past weekend as part of the UW World Dance Series (Jan. 21-23).

From this viewing, one can see why audiences like Alston. He uses a movement vocabulary that emphasizes propulsion, with dancers often working at high velocity for extended periods. Whatever choreographic conception might define the artist’s work, it is the sheer physicality of the company, and their movement about the stage space that delivers the goods.

Alston’s movement seems a fusion of worlds, influenced by ballet with its formalism and academic tradition, and the more open and idiosyncratic style of contemporary dance. His work is marked by a defined separation of legs from torso — the former darting, extending, elongating, whether on the ground or in jumps and leaps, wielded almost as if weapons, and the latter held erect at almost all times, with arms making a variety of sweeping gestures and lunges from the generally inflexible core.

His choice of music for the Meany program was an eclectic and intriguing one. A suite by the American popular composer and musician Hoagy Carmichael, three movements from Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka ably played live by the pianist Jason Ridgway, and a triptych from Phillip Glass’ “Songs From Liquid Days.”

The Carmichael work starts out cleverly with a studio recording of “Riverboat Shuffle,” with the composer heard deprecating his bad piano playing on take after take. The dancers riff off that, but soon are running full blast around the stage. The concert notes for the piece, presumably written by Alston, describe Carmichael’s music as “syncopated,” “swinging,” and “rhythmically driven.” Regrettably, the dance was only driven, and did not swing.

Alston did little to capture the composer’s complexities and variations, his at times almost louche spirit — especially for those who remember seeing him in movies of the 40s and 50s. Instead, he stuck to a rhythmic predictability that had movements hitting hard on the 1 and 4 of each measure, rather than giving us unexpected ones that crossed measures, or contrasted with them. Everything was uptempo and/or muscular, even when the music was not. The lack of release in the dancer’s torsos restrained the ability to go with the music’s charm and flow, making it all extremities and exactness, and not the spontaneity that one would have liked.

The closing segment was the composer’s enduring masterpiece, “Stardust,” a solo danced by Anneli Binder. It was a wonderful idea, a small, wistful end rather than a knockout group finale, and it almost worked. Unfortunately, the stage was a bit too dark, and the patterned lighting on the floor blended with the patterned dress of the dancer, who small and a bit brittle and therefore tended to disappear. Keeping her towards the middle and the rear of the stage for much of the time also diminished her impact.

The most intriguing piece of the evening, and the one replete with possibility was “Movements from Petrushka,” the earliest Alston work on the program from 1994 (the other two were created two years ago). It was a stripped-down homage to the original from 1911, a collaboration between Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the composer Igor Stravinsky, designer Alexandre Benois, and starring as the melancholy puppet Petrushka, the fabled and brilliant Vaslav Nijinsky.

The program tells us that Petrushka the puppet’s suffering, in this version, is meant to presage the mental collapse that in real life was to overtake Nijinsky a few short years later. The wonderfully named Ira Mandela Siobhan struggles mightily to give some meaning to the Petrushka character, but really doesn’t have a lot to work with beyond a surfeit of overwrought movement telegraphing Petrushka’s state of mind.

Alston’s intent to compare the “suffering” puppet with the spirited carnival crowd doing “energetic folk-dance” never really takes off, nor does it give us a portrait of who Petrushka is and why he suffers. The “folk-dance” segments allude to some generic dances of an imagined Russia, but lack any real charisma or complexity. The program was completed by “Blow Over,” a long, to some interminable dance set to the familiar bombast of composer Phillip Glass.

Alston’s artistry strikes me as a transitional one in Britain’s development of a non-ballet, contemporary concert dance tradition. He has blended some of the best of the original and independent American spirit of modern dance a la Martha Graham and the cosmopolitan and brainy work of Merce Cunningham, and mixed them up with the classical ballet tradition. The result is a definable movement style, but a superficial one that wears away at you as it repeats itself over the course of a night. The work of younger British choreographers may now supersede that of Alston, but his career has been an important one that has helped make them possible.

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