True to their usual standard of extraordinary craftsmanship and virtuosic dancing, Richard Alston Dance Company brought a mixed bill of new and old works to Sadler’s Wells. The evening’s programme included three pieces: Alston’s Roughcut, which premièred in 1990; Lie of the Land, a work by rehearsal director Martin Lawrance; and one of Alston’s newest choreographies, A Ceremony of Carols. Each piece shared the heightened musicality integral to Alston’s work, and the dancers performed the deft partnering and intricate movement with a graceful ease that was contagious.

Richard Alston's Ceremony of Carols © Chris Nash
Richard Alston's Ceremony of Carols
© Chris Nash

The first work, Roughcut, is set to Steve Reich’s exuberant New York Counterpoint for clarinet and tape (1986), and Electric Counterpoint for guitar and tape (1987). Even 20 years later this piece still holds the definitive mark of Alston’s light and tightly-tuned movement, with every arm and leg tracing the wandering score. Also indicative of Alston’s work is the lack of an underlying narrative. Drawing on his Cunningham background, Alston may give snapshots of relationships and moods, but ultimately the dance celebrates the beauty of the dancing body, rather than a specific storyline. In this way the Roughcut won’t have you deeply questioning the meaning of life, but it is a playful jaunt that underscores the incredible technical and artistic abilities of the dancers.

The piece also thrived on complex spatial patterns that whirled the dancers around the stage. They never seemed to fully land in one area, but moved in a natural ebb and flow across the space. In this way the choreography seamlessly flowed from one segment to the next. Interacting in duets, trios and large group movements, the dancers also clearly enjoy sharing each other’s buoyant energy. Originally Alston’s choreography aimed to encapsulate the lively cast of dancers he was working with at the time, and this dynamism is still evident in this reconstruction.

Following Roughcut was Martin Lawrance’s Lie of the Land. Beginning with an explosive solo performed by Andres de Blust-Mommaerts, Lawrance’s work still contained the faint echo of Alston, yet it had a bold flavour that didn’t just invite the audience in – it demanded that we watch. Ned Rorem’s Fourth String Quartet provided the pulse for the piece, and the dancers anticipated every twist and quirk in the music. Lawrance used the flexibility and agility of the dancers to their extremes, and each visual picture was more stunning than the next. Mostly dancing in solos and duets, the dancers performed the choreography with exacting vigour and more than a little attitude, which differed from the light air of Alston’s Roughcut. In Lie of the Land Lawrance pushed the limit and came out with a spirited work that coupled the musicality of Alston with his own choreographic zeal.

The night ended on a high, sweet note with A Ceremony of Carols. Compared to the bright energy of the first two works, this piece showed a deep, grounded spirituality that was a welcome contrast. Benjamin Britten’s score was performed beautifully by the Canterbury Cathedral Choir and harpist Camilla Pay, who joined the cast of 16 dancers onstage. The piece contained a lot of group unison performed by the entire cast, all in red tunics with white trousers, while the choir was wearing purple. With everyone onstage it became a bit too busy for the eye, but during the solos and duets the configuration was manageable.

The work, originally created to celebrate the opening of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, didn’t directly interpret the Christmas scenes described in the Carols; however, it did draw heavily on religious imagery. A bench shaped like a cross, and a beautiful duet between dancers Pierre Tappon and Hannah Kidd, representing the Virgin Mary and her son, are obvious and conscious references made by Alston. Overall the piece shone best in the understated moments, when music and movement didn’t compete for attention, but struck a soft balance.

Alston’s mixed bill at Sadler’s Wells displayed three very different choreographic journeys, all using the music as the main source of inspiration – in true Alston fashion. The versatility in the music used was mirrored in the versatility of the dancers, who covered the spectrum from fast, quick footwork to smooth under-curves and balances. There’s a reason that Richard Alston is one of Britain’s best-known choreographers, and his dancers are perfectly tuned to perform his work, wherever his musical inspiration takes him.

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