Feature: Richard Alston DVD review

Monday 16 August 2010

Richard Alston Dance Company. DVD Cover 'Gypsy Mixture' and 'Nigredo' Richard Alston DVD
Gypsy Mixture / Nigredo
£24.99 (inc. P&P)
Reviewed by Graham Watts

The medieval philosophy of alchemy – the fanciful process of turning
base metal into gold – is said to produce a charred, blackened mess,
known as ‘Nigredo’. Turning filmed dance into an
experience remotely close to watching a live performance is a different
kind of alchemy: many directors detract from the experience by making
decisions for their audience about close-ups and camera angles. So,
to find a Director with a profound artistic appreciation of dance
performance makes all the difference and in this celebratory film of
two classic dances by Richard Alston, Darshan Singh Bhuller has caressed the choreographer’s art with a light, sensitively detailed touch.

Both filmed dances are preceded by interviews with Alston to give an
intriguing illumination of his thought processes in the development of
these works; an exposure of the creative process that allows a rare
insight into the mind of one of Britain’s most successful and prolific
dance makers. As Alston says in one of the interviews, he often
develops themes, which “he doesn’t necessarily need the audience to know”,
but his typically enigmatic lack of explanation is unusually opened out
for examination in this intriguing film. It will be of great benefit
to students of his choreography but equally stimulating for anyone who
enjoys contemporary dance.

Gypsy Mixture is one of my all-time favourite works by Alston. Unsurprisingly, the music – a CD of largely Balkan songs entitled Electric Gypsyland – came first. In fact Alston had used it frequently in class and noted
the excited response from his often tired dancers. He was
especially attracted to the idea that the older members of the Romanian
gypsy band would have lived most of their lives under the harsh
repression of the Ceauce?cu regime, and, yet despite some darker
passages, Gypsy Mixture is a remarkably joyous celebration
of village life, centred upon the café and its resident accordionist,
mixed with the sounds of dogs and children playing outside in the
village square.

A strong couple – Darren Ellis and Yolande Yorke- Edgell – figure prominently in the village dances but Gypsy Mixture is Jonathan Goddard at his eye-catching best, especially in the 3rd dance (a duet with Anneli Binder),
which has Goddard in hip-wiggling, fun form with fast feet, slithery
spins and spiky jumps. Goddard is also superb in leading the group
finale in a scintillating rhythmic dance to the surprisingly catchy
Romany Electropop of Lest Sexy, by Shantel and Mahala Rai Banda. In Gypsy Mixture, Alston has used the rich variety of the ‘Electric Gypsyland’ sounds
to encapsulate the concept of an itinerant people, always on the edge
of society, marginalised and close to persecution, but with an
abounding sense of joyousness that is unleashed by the simple power of
music and dance. The power of simplicity in the lives of Balkan
Gypsies is effectively captured in a series of photographs by Josef Koudelka that accompanies the narrative explanation of the work on this DVD.

Alston’s inspiration for choreography seems always to grow from a musical impulse and yet Nigredo is different since it was the composer – Simon Holt – who approached Alston to make the work on music that had already been
written and Alston had not previously heard. Holt had been inspired to
compose Nigredo by seeing Anselm Kiefer‘s
eponymous painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which in turn
relates to Jung’s application of alchemy to the psyche. So, this is
clearly a work in which multiple artistic and scientific influences
have crossed over in a fusion that climaxes with Alston’s “drawing in space” with
the energy flow through the bodies of his four dancers. Kiefer’s
painting has been translated into the third dimension through music.

In the preamble, Alston explains that his opening couple, Rose Sudworth and Jon Goddard,
are different metals desperate to be entwined as they perform a
sensual, romantic but sometimes awkward opening duet with soft,
clutching holds punctuated by sudden, violent limb extensions. A
third dancer – Pierre Tappon – enters with
deliberately earnest movements. His solo is raw, seemingly
unfinished, with a dark overtone covering pools of softer phrasing.
Tappon gives way to Anneli Binder, her movement
characterised by deliberate steps and classical lines: she seems to be
the negative agent at odds with the stylised signatures of the
principal duet. Perhaps, she is the element that prevents the alchemy
from occurring, since when Goddard and Sudworth return, their actions
are more frenetic: clutching, tugging and turning away from each
other. Goddard ends the work in a defiant, heroic solo moving from
floor-based movement to long open positions, swirling turns and two big
jumps. The alchemy has failed and we’re left with the proud, charred
remnants of Nigredo. Commenting on the work and its gestation, Alston says on film that it’s “not a piece I expected to make and sometimes they are the most surprising and the most wonderful”.

This DVD is no nigredo but rather a sparkling gem, coupling two very
different works from the Alston catalogue, expertly captured on film to
provide a sympathetic and unencumbered enjoyment, which is further
fuelled by the choreographer’s own rare and absorbing explanations of
the impetus for each element of the two works. I strongly recommend
this sophisticated, entertaining and absorbing DVD to anyone; whether
they have an academic interest in the construction of Richard Alston’s
choreography or just a passing fancy to see some excellent contemporary
dance whenever they wish.

Buy on The Place website

August 2010

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