This year marks half a century since Richard Alston choreographed his first piece of contemporary dance, and how better to celebrate than by revisiting the milestones of those fifty years?
In this dynamic and inspiring review of the choreographer’s self-selected highlights of his career, short excerpts of dances are performed in an order befitting their motifs and musical themes rather than in a chronological sequence. This blurs the lines between decades and influences, amalgamating Alston’s work into a reconstituted dance in itself. The cohesion of the diverse works is aided by the communal undertones of many of the dances: dancers melt on and off stage, giving way to new partnerships which seem as much transitionary as changeovers between pieces. This sense of evolution is a sustained theme throughout the exhibition of Alston’s fifty year repertoire, with the interlinking of the dances serving to highlight the durability of his choreography.
Some of the dances, particularly the more recent ones, have undertones of violence and entrapment, exploring power relationships and the struggle of minorities through movements suggestive of fighting and a drive to escape. The dissonance of the musical harmonies in ‘Detour’ (choreographed by Associate Choreographer Martin Lawrance) reflects this underlying disquiet, yet in other sequences the choice of music at times imposes a constraint on the energy of the dances, with the classical, orchestral soundscape taming the vivacity of the movements. This stems in part from the fact that the music is pre-recorded and feels distanced and dislocated from the stage. One of Alston’s earliest dances, Rainbow Bandit, is not set to music, a choice that ultimately results in a more immersive experience as the sounds of the dancers’ breathing, footsteps, and rustling costumes provide an additional sensory experience that speaks of the behind-the-scenes production of dance.
In contrast to this, Alston’s most recent work (first shown on the evening I attended), ‘Brahms Hungarian’, is performed to the live soundtrack of pianist Jason Ridgway. This meeting of the music with the movements it inspires takes the performance in a welcome new direction, revealing the intimate links between the dynamics of Brahms’ music and the choreography. However, despite being described by Alston as “rambunctious”, the Hungarian finale is less dynamic and energetic than previous dances. The costumes, too, become less dramatic, with daringly short outfits giving way to more classical floaty, floral dresses. Resultantly, the audience experiences a ‘winding-down’ of the energy that earlier excerpts ignited. After viewing the range of Alston’s earlier works it is difficult not to question whether some degree of vibrancy and experimentalism has waned over time.
Alston’s programme is an impressive collection of the stand-out works of his career. In its best moments, it is a triumphant exhibition of a half-century of celebrated choreography and, though at times the movements are restrained by the music, the performance is a very well-considered selection of vibrant and powerful pieces. For such a rare opportunity to see the most important works of Alston’s career, the theatre was disappointingly scarcely-populated and the audience appeared to be primarily made up of those who had borne contemporary witness to much of his fifty years of choreography. In order to entice younger audiences, Alston may have to reinvigorate his future works with the experimentalism that his most recent piece seems to have set aside.