Interview: Richard Alston - on making dance to Britten's 'Phaedra'

Monday 4 November 2013

Richard Alston Dance Company - 'Phaedra' in rehearsal  - Nancy Nerantzi,  Ihsaan de Banya, Oihana Vesga Bujan,  James Muller. Photo: Tony Nandi

As part of its Barbican Britten season, marking the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten’s birth, the Barbican commissioned choreographer Richard Alston to make two new works. Britten has been a major influence on Alston. His cantata Phaedra , telling the story of a woman infatuated with her stepson is one of the last works he made – and one of Alston’s choices for this programme. It features mezzo-soprano Allison Cook singing on stage and also moving with the dancers. Richard Alston wrote about the process of creating this new work just before he took the company into the theatre for final rehearsals. “It’s something very new for me,” he says, “ you have to go on taking risks to keep your work lively…”

Working on Phaedra has certainly been exciting but it has also had its difficulties. The difficulty has basically been to integrate two different ways of moving, the stylised movement of trained dancers and the more natural movement of a singer- more natural yet also more constrained because classical singing involves a concentrated physical effort to maintain a posture where you can best breathe, and also to focus out towards the audience in order to be best heard. You can’t easily do that facing upstage.

In this piece, Allison Cook has to convey the bulk of the narrative: Britten wrote Phaedra as a dramatic cantata and the solo voice cuts from one part of the story to another, addressing different characters in each ‘scene’. How to fit dancers into this context? Well, Britten himself wrote his last major opera, Death in Venice , with the main singer’s obsessive love interest represented by a wordless dancer, so it was straightforward to treat Hippolytus, Phaedra’s stepson, in the same way. However, in Phaedra’s succinct fifteen minutes the story has to move in a sort of pared down précis of the myth. Aspects have had to be abandoned, no time to involve the Gods (Aphrodite, Artemis, Poseidon) whose jealousies and rages rule so many a Greek Myth. No way to show that in the early part of the story, the absent Phaedra’s absent husband Theseus is mistakenly assumed to be dead. Phaedra’s nurse Oenone, in the full story, gives Phaedra bad advice which only makes matters worse. Phaedra turns on her and she, in despair kills herself. How can you choreograph advice? Out went that element too.

So, in such a short time, the story had to be simplified to its most necessary ingredients, to make clear the intensely suppressed lust Phaedra feels for her step-son- his horror when that becomes clear to him, the lie Phaedra concocts to defend herself and the unquestioning response of Theseus leading to his son’s death.

These individual characters are, as in Greek Drama, observed by the dancers of the Chorus, who punctuate the piece with waves of movement across the stage. The women split off to mourn the suicide of Phaedra, the men separate to be Hippolytus’s fellow athletes and later his horses who uncontrollably destroy him. Their movement is strong and angular, archaic like Minoan frescoes. The dance becomes a spatial structure through which the singer as Phaedra can move as freely as possible, but always with someone to focus on until she withdraws into a calmer meditation as she dies. She has taken poison, and thus paradoxically takes control of her life again by choosing to end it.

As I write this, it’s the day before we go into the theatre to see it all onstage. Will it work? The frank answer is that I’ve no idea. I know how charismatic Allison Cook is, and I absolutely know that the music has great power. But this project is something very new for me- you have to go on taking risks to keep your work lively. I don’t know; all I can say to myself is “Trust in the Lord”, in this case the genius Lord Britten of Aldeburgh.

Barbican Britten: Phaedra
Richard Alston Dance Company/Britten Sinfonia
Barbican Theatre, 6 – 9 November 2013

Photo: Phaedra in rehearsal – Nancy Nerantzi, Ihsaan de Banya, Oihana Vesga Bujan & James Muller – by Tony Nandi

“Why dance to Britten? The simple answer is that his music breathes. It rises and falls, often with the voice, in lucid phrases that have a palpable sense of physical movement.” Richard Alston in the Guardian, 31 October 2013

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