The Place has celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2019. The aim of its founders was to establish a distinctive British form of contemporary dance albeit one that looked across the Atlantic Ocean for inspiration. Richard Alston has been associated with the building throughout its life, having been one of the first dozen students at the London Contemporary Dance School; and the company that bears his name has been resident at The Place for exactly half the venue’s life, but is about to be closed due to a switch in funding priorities and a shifting emphasis towards younger artists.

Nicholas Shikkis, Jason Tucker and Elly Braund in <i>Detour</i> © Chris Nash
Nicholas Shikkis, Jason Tucker and Elly Braund in Detour
© Chris Nash

This brief return to their home base provided a poignant end to the company’s last autumn season. The programme included two works from the very beginning of Alston’s choreographic journey; references to the significant influence of Merce Cunningham on his craft; and a world premiere made on graduating students from LCDS. It also incorporated a performance from the evergreen Siobhan Davies (another graduate from that first cohort of students at The Place).

Motifs resonant of Cunningham’s style strongly flavoured the solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly (1970), Alston’s earliest surviving choreography. The honour of the opening solo went to Jennifer Hayes, exhibiting consistently beautiful and smooth shapes while traversing the space, followed by the equally clean lines of Monique Jonas and Nahum McLean. Ecclesiastical influences have often hallmarked Alston’s choreography and their origins might be traced to Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), a group piece made to the haunting Adagio from Death and the Maiden, which soared with sentiment in the intense intimacy of the space.

<i>Isthmus</i> © Tony Nandi
Isthmus
© Tony Nandi

From the oldest extant examples of Alston choreography, we fast-forwarded to the newest with Bari (2019), named after the southern Italian city in Puglia, on the Adriatic coast. It has been created on the pizzica, the traditional folk dance from that area. Essentially a partnered dance, Alston has crafted an ensemble dance for five pairs, made on graduating students from The Place who performed with joyful enthusiasm. The Adriatic Sea divides the Italian and Balkan peninsulas and the music – Ta Travudia – echoes the upbeat, jazzy Electric Gypsyland themes of the recently-revived Gypsy Mixture (2004). A quartet of RADC dancers returned for Isthmus (2012), a crystalline compendium of fleet footwork and breezy attack, made to Jo Kondo’s eponymous orchestral work for a small ensemble (oboe, bassoon and violin to the fore).

Siobhan Davies moves with such upright elegance that simply watching her walk across a room would be a pleasure. Dancing alongside Elly Braund, Davies performed a set of solos brought together from Daniel Squire’s staging to commemorate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth, in April this year, drawn from several of his late 20th-century works. Davies’ long association with Alston, coupled with an extraordinary youthfulness (in her seventieth year) and the grace, expressiveness and integrity of both dancers brought the first half of this special event to a poignant close.

Elly Braund in <i>Red Run</i> © Chris Nash
Elly Braund in Red Run
© Chris Nash

Following this succession of brief works, the second half comprised two entire pieces, opening with Red Run (1998) made to the brisk, jazzy rhythms of Heiner Goebbels’ eponymous composition and performed by six of the RADC dancers. It says a great deal about Alston’s generosity that the concluding work should be one not choreographed by himself but by his long-term Associate, Martin Lawrance. Detour (2018) is an exceptional example of the pace and flow of his style, nine dancers driven along to the sound of two contrasting percussion pieces: Akira Miyoshi’s complex and melodious Ripple for Solo Marimba; and the gathering abrasive intensity of Michael Gordon’s Timber, as remixed by Icelandic composer, Jóhan Jóhansson. The unrelenting speed was plain sailing to these exceptional quicksilver dancers. Lawrance is now resident choreographer at Ballet Manila, which already has five of his works in its repertoire. The renowned attack and drive of the Ballet Manila dancers provides a perfect fit for Lawrance’s distinct style and Detour should be a ready-made transfer to The Philippines.

As this first half-century at The Place comes to an end, Alston will also be moving on, continuing those transatlantic associations with his appointment as resident choreographer at New York Theatre Ballet. His unique contribution to establishing that distinctive form of British contemporary dance having been appropriately recognised with the award of a knighthood in this year’s New Year Honours.

Inevitably this was an evening that was laden with sentiment and celebration, with this outstanding company coming to an end on a high; leaving the stage with its audiences wanting more. The only pity is that soon they will have to travel far to seek any new output from either choreographer. Of course, the Arts Council England needs to encourage new talent but there surely should still be room to fund the continuing mature output of a proven master.

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