Feature: Happy Birthday Richard Alston

Thursday 25 September 2008

40/60 a special Dance Umbrella programme at Sadler’s Wells on 2 & 3 October celebrates two significant anniversaries in the life and work of Richard Alston. We asked him to look back in time and also to the future for us…

It’s your 60th birthday and 40 years since you made your first work. Do anniversaries matter to you?
No, but they do draw people’s attention to the fact that I’ve been around for a while.

Tell us about Transit, the first work which you made 40 years ago?
It was a dance for four women (one of them Siobhan Davies) in long Graham-style dresses. It was just a sketch really, and the women started
one side of the stage and travelled across, exiting the other. For ages I couldn’t think what to call it, and then one day I got stuck in traffic, right behind a
Ford van…..

And it’s 30 years since you danced your solo Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic, on the opening night of the first Dance Umbrella Festival in 1978. What do you remember about that first Dance Umbrella?
Earlier that evening Douglas Dunn danced a really beautiful solo in the middle of which he hung from the back wall, still, for a long time. An element of the audience got restive and quite vocal. Later, when I danced my solo, which was improvised, I made sure that I never stopped moving for a second!

Christopher Bannerman in 'Strider' [1971]
Was the contemporary dance scene very different 40 years ago?
Life in 1968 was economically much more secure and optimistic; the future seemed to hold many more opportunities. There was a lot going on in the Arts but much of it was pretty raw and low-key – it died a natural death, I think.

And today – do you feel that dance is an art form which has come of age?
In the sixties the different parts of the dance world held themselves much more apart. It’s the ballet world that has more or less re-invented itself and consequently broken down barriers. The link between contemporary dance choreographers and established successful dance companies has made Dance as a whole far more broadly accessible.

When you were a student at London Contemporary Dance school, who were the artists/choreographers who most excited you then?
I went to galleries a lot (Kasmin especially) to see artists such as Antony Caro, David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield. I caught as many concerts as possible with Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In theatre, Peter Brook did amazing things – his Midsummer Night’s Dream was a revelation. The visiting dance companies included Merce [Cunningham], Martha [Graham], Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp and in between I was an avid fan of Fonteyn… it was a great time.

Darshan Singh Bhuller in 'Movements fromPetrushka' [1994]
Tell us about The Men In My Life – the centre piece of your evening at Sadler’s Wells, which is extracts of work that you’ve made for male dancers over four decades. Could you say something about some of them, what made them such remarkable dancers – and the reason you’ve included them?
Strider was made for Christopher Banner, a founding member of my own company, also called Strider. The solo is demanding, rigorous and fiercely purist in its stance – it’s been fascinating to get it back together, and it’s still very challenging! Dutiful Ducks is speedy and rhythmically exact – it explored the kind of detail that Michael Clark was so naturally gifted to deal with, moving very fast and somehow staying rather serene. I made Petrushka especially for Darshan Singh Bhuller, a sleek and darkly powerful performer. It works on the image of the puppet Petrushka, but really the piece is about Nijinsky and the way he tortured himself into insanity. The duet from Rumours, Visions was originally done on students and one of them was a very young Arthur Pita. He played the adolescent poet Rimbaud, a wild young creature, fierce and reckless. Arthur had a pure energy which spoke to me of the kind of untrammeled willfulness that I needed. We made it in 1993 and I’ve hardly changed a step. The Britten music (Les Illuminations) has that same fierce pure energy. Jason Piper is a guest (star!) for the Wells shows. He has always had a charismatic presence onstage, a dancer with great attack and innate musicality- it’s a pleasure to see him do his Water Music solo again.

I’ve tried to assemble contrasting works from over all the years- I hope it’s going to work!

Do you see the work that you made for men as your most significant? Why is this?
No, not significant in itself but there are far fewer men than women in dance and I’ve always enjoyed encouraging them and harnessing their particular energy.

Tell us about Strider – the company that you formed in 1972. What were you aiming to do with it?
I just wanted to experiment, to try different things which I couldn’t do with London Contemporary – they needed to establish themselves in a quite mainstream

As Artistic Director of Rambert you were responsible for changing the name from Ballet Rambert to Rambert Dance Company. Was that in reflection of the direction you wanted the company to take?
It reflected the fact that we went to the US and they complained that we were called “Ballet”. I remember they said “we didn’t expect toe shoes but we thought
there’d be at least a little chiffon” so we changed it.

Martin Lawrance & Sonja Peedo in 'The Men in My Life' [from 'Shimmer' 2004]
As a choreographer have your ways of working changed over the years – or are they essentially the same?
That’s a very complicated question and would take too long to answer so close to our premiere!

You’ve been Artistic Director, with your own company at The Place for 14 years. Presumably it must work well for you! Do you ever anticipate any further moves in your career?
To be honest I’ve never anticipated any moves, but sometimes they’ve just happened.

Looking to the future – will dance always be a part of it?
One day when it all hurts too much, I dream of being a writer.

40 / 60 at Sadler’s Wells, 2 & 3 October 08, more details/online booking

Richard Alston Dance Company

40 / 60 tours to Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter, Edinburgh and High Wycombe this Autumn. Further info/dates

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