Feature: Still Striding On...

Friday 27 May 2011

Richard AlstonPhoto: Hugo Glendinning _*Forget Wayne McGregor, Akram Khan, Hofesh Shechter and all the other, newer kids on the UK dance block. Come autumn 2011 the choreographer with the highest profile in London might very well be Richard Alston, writes Donald Hutera.* _

The primary reason is Focus on Alston, a bundle of events spearheaded by Dance Umbrella for the 33rd edition of its annual contemporary dance festival. These include a quadruple bill of world premieres and revivals from Alston’s eponymous company, two separate public discussions of which he is the linchpin, and a showcase of Alston-inspired work by upcoming young dance-makers.

At 62, Alston understands being busy. As artistic director of The Place – an umbrella organisation encompassing Robin Howard Dance Theatre and the London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) – as well as the head of his own ten-member dance troupe, he knows the meaning of words like productive and responsible. His most natural creative home, however, is a dance studio where he’s in gentle, meticulous command of a clutch of well-trained and articulate bodies.

A colleague of his once remarked with some surprise upon how kind Alston is when he’s all fired up and actually on the job making up dances. “I’m not a Sturm und Drang choreographer,” the man himself explains, sitting in t-shirt and sweatpants on a small sofa in the inner sanctum of his office at The Place. “I don’t work out of angst and tension.” As for claims of kindness Alston says, “I just think, when they [the dancers] are doing what I want them to do, it [being kind] seems like it should be a basic condition. I make sure they push themselves but I don’t drive people to the edge in any intimidating way. But I do want to see something new from them. For me coming out of the comfort zone is about trying to stretch dancers in new directions, or getting them to dig deeper.”

Alston has been mining a rich vein of movement since the late 1960s. He was part of the initial graduating class of the LCDS, which was essentially the first flowering of home-grown modern dance in Britain. Other groundbreaking acts of his followed, such as founding the first British independent dance company (called Strider) in 1972. After a two-year sojourn in New York, where he studied at the studios of the late, great and tirelessly innovative Merce Cunningham, Alston returned to London to forge a long career as one of his native country’s most acclaimed choreographers. Over the decades he’s been a frequent Dance Umbrella artist, presenting work in the inaugural festival in 1978 and on seven subsequent occasions.

These days Alston is justly renowned for, among other things, the breadth of his musicality (he’s made dances to everyone from Bach to Scott Joplin to Steve Reich) and sheer sense of craft. In a culture increasingly marked by the rewards of instant celebrity, this kind of high-calibre dedication to form hasn’t always been appreciated. “I have to live with the fact that some people think my work is hopelessly old-fashioned because I live and breathe steps,” he says, referring to the careful attention to footwork that characterises all of his work. He also makes a small confession: “More and more, when I need to be uplifted by dance, I go see a ballet company.”

Of course this doesn’t at all negate Alston’s abiding interest in contemporary movement, both by himself and others. The range of activities over which he’ll preside during Dance Umbrella 2011 is gratifyingly diverse. Alston and Ben Duke, the talented choreographer, performer and co-founder of The Place Prize-winning dance-theatre company Lost Dog, will talk about selections from this year’s Dance Umbrella in an online event called In Conversation. At the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, Alston teams up with Pedro Machado of Candoco for the fifth instalment of Dance Umbrella’s ongoing series A Feeling for Practice. The pair will discuss revivals of great dances from the past featured this year’s the Dance Umbrella roster, especially Trisha Brown’s scintillating *Set and Reset/Reset* (which Candoco performs on Fri 14 & Sat 15 October at Southbank Centre) and Alston’s own 1984 landmark *Wildlife*.

Richard Alston Dance CompanyPhoto: Chris Nash *Wildlife* is a key component of Focus on Alston. Created at breakneck speed for Rambert Dance Company, this taut, urgent sextet features an explosively exotic score by Nigel Osborne and a zig-zag design of oversize kites by Richard Smith that heightened the angularity of the movement. In Alston Takes Cover (Wed 19 – Sat 22 October, 7pm, The Place, part of the Dance Umbrella Springboard series) a trio of young choreographers – Tony Adigun of Avant Garde Dance, Rachel Lopez de la Nieta of Dog Kennel Hill Project and the duo Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas of the international collective BLOOM! – will be given the opportunity to present their individual takes on Wildlife via short dances made in response to the Alston original.

Alston will also return to Wildlife, along with several other seminal dances, as part of an evening at The Place dubbed Richard Alston At Home (Wed 19 – Sat 22 October, 8pm, The Place). The bill includes a new work from company mainstay Martin Lawrance, a revival of a sextet by Alston’s now-octogenarian mentor Robert Cohan, a new piece by Alston himself set to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 and a collage of extracts from his vast body of work entitled *Early Days*. Along with tantalising bits of Wildlife and the 1980 dance *Rainbow Ripples*, the latter will include sections of *Something to Do* and *Still Moving Still*. Mainly reconstructed from memory ( “There was no videotape in those days,” Alston says), these last two were among the first professional dances he ever devised. The first has a text by Gertrude Stein, while the other apparently makes use of a suitcase and a 12-foor aluminium pole. “I won’t say any more so I don’t give the game away,” Alston says with just a hint of mischief before adding, “I think it’s quite good to show people how simple my work could be.”

Alston Takes Cover, Wed 19 – Sat 22 Oct, 7pm, The Place More details
Richard Alston At Home, Wed 19 – Sat 22 October, 8pm, The Place. More details


Alston Takes Cover is co-produced by Dance Umbrella and The Place

Photos: Richard Alston: Hugo Glendinning
___Richard Alston Dance Company: Chris Nash_

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