Richard Alston Dance Company has performed at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre annually for the last twenty years, and Friday sadly marked the premiere of Final Edition, their last tour before they close in April 2020 due to funding alterations from the Arts Council of England. Going forward, the Arts Council’s focus will be on supporting younger artists, making the opening curtain-raiser of Friday’s performance particularly significant. Pursuit, choreographed by James Muller, features a group of young dancers from Inverurie-based Re:Volution Youth Dance Company. The music, Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev, with its relentless, rhythmic momentum kept the young dancers both figuratively and literally on their toes. Alston has a track record of supporting youth dance companies and Re:Volution had opened the Richard Alston dance company’s 2017 tour. Many of the young dancers in Friday’s performance had taken part two years ago, and the performance reflected on past glories while looking towards the future.

Monique Jonas, Elly Braund, Melissa Braithwaite and Ellen Yilma in Brahms Hungarian
© Chris Nash

The main company then took the stage with the courtly yet playful Brahms Hungarian for four couples. Intricate quick footwork contrasts with stately sweeping grandeur, and the dancers’ bodies and the music fit each other perfectly. Jason Ridgway played Brahms’s Hungarian Dances for solo piano on-stage, allowing for a deeper interaction between dancers and music, particularly noticeable during a clapping dance where the dancers and pianist, spotlit against darkness, watched and nodded to each other. Alston’s choreography, a complex blend of classical and folk dance, is technically challenging and some of the elevation could have been lighter, but the dances were exciting and beautiful, particularly the final (the famous Hungarian Dance no. 5) where all four couples weaved together with mesmerising grace.

Mazur, a male duet set to some of Chopin’s Mazurkas followed. Dancers Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis portrayed two friends, far from their home country, mirroring Chopin’s experiences as an exile in Paris, yearning for his homeland through Polish compositions. The dance would have fit snugly into a bohemian Parisian café, as Shikkis leaned stylishly on the piano, once again played beautifully by Ridgway, watching Harriette dance longingly. The friendship between the two as they support each other with lifts and beautiful arm choreography exemplifies the poignant dichotomy of solace in shared solitude.

Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis in A Far Cry
© Chris Nash

Against a backdrop of Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro came A Far Cry, a world premiere by associate choreographer Martin Lawrance. The title is a reference to the opposing emotions of losing the company and celebrating its successes and contribution to dance. A Far Cry is a dance of contrasts: an aggressively passionate couple spotlit against darkness juxtaposes the larger group, more outwardly facing, in full brightness. While the couple, Elly Braund and Nicholas Shikkis, dance towards each other, the contrasting lead couple of the wider group, Jennifer Hayes and Nahum McLean, swivel outwards away from their partner. The dance culminates in a menacing face-off, with Joshua Harriette as the intimidating ringleader rallying the group. Yet the dance ends on a hopeful edge, as our main couple look towards a spotlight; the sun has risen on the horizon.

Nicholas Shikkis and Elly Braund in Voices and Light Footsteps
© Chris Nash

The final dance, Voices and Light Footsteps, was the highlight of the evening. This is Alston’s fourth dance to the music of Monteverdi, and consists of a suite of ten movements featuring sung madrigals as well as instrumental music. It is a refreshing change, given the dance world’s current trend of tuneless, electronic rave performances, to experience new choreography set to older music. Although Monteverdi composed the pieces over 400 years ago, the dancing and the music is so perfectly matched that they could have been written for each other. Sung canons are reflected in the dancing with staggered choreography – one dancer moves, then the next, then the next. But like the Baroque music, the dancers seamlessly transition into synchronous harmony and flow into Baroque poses at the end of each movement. Little details, like the female dancers’ petit battements in time with the tenors' vibrato, take the unity between dance and music to the next level. 

Jenny Hayes and Joshua Harriette in Voices and Light Footsteps
© Chris Nash

In Monteverdi's works, music and text supports each other. In Voices and Light Footsteps, the dancing and choreography are, in turn, completely supported by and support the music – the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It is an absolutely stunning number and I didn’t want it to end.

It is sad that this will be the company’s final tour, but if this must be their final production, what a fantastic farewell. I wish Alston and the dancers all the best for whatever the future holds for them.