Review: Richard Alston Dance Company in 40 / 60 at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 2 & 3 Oct 08
Reviewed by Mary Kate Connolly - Tuesday 7 October 2008

In 40/60 at Sadler’s Wells, Richard Alston celebrated three birthdays in one three-tiered choreographic cake. In addition to ‘40’ (his years as a choreographer), and ‘60’ (his years on the earth), there is the fact that Alston’s link to Dance Umbrella began when he danced his improvised solo,_ Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic,_ on the opening night of the very first festival, 30 years ago.

Amid such commemorations, 40/60 seemed apt billing, combining retrospection with two new works, which in their vigour and lightness, placed the emphasis of the evening on surging forward, rather than looking back. The first piece formed the London premiere of Shuffle it Right, a carefree frolic into the music of Hoagy Carmichael, for five couples. With men in high-waisted slacks, and women in floral dresses of a bygone age, Shuffle was immediately chic and effortless. A jazzy nonchalance was combined with classical precision to forge an aesthetic filled with tongue in cheek abandonment, but grounded in meticulous attention to rhythm and line.

At times there were hints of the ‘flapper’ style of the twenties, and at an appropriate moment in the Southern bluesy music, the couples waltzed, knees bent down low, into hoe-down territory. Watching the dancers enact Alston’s choreography, one is struck at how deceptively natural his bodily lines, rhythmic embellishments and rebounding jumps, look to dance. Certainly it is a dancer’s craft to make tricky choreography seem second nature, but there is a distinct logic and causality to Alston’s sequencing which not only demonstrates his innate understanding of the momentum of the dancing body, but also makes for a seamless aesthetic, never revealing the joins in the pattern. After a playful duet which terminated with a slap across the face, and a musing introverted female solo, Shuffle it Right came to an end as unceremoniously as it had begun; with a seductive tilt of the head to the final tinkling note of Carmichael’s piano.

The Men in My Life, a collection of nine solo works which Alston created during his 40 years as a choreographer made for a varied programme with a pleasing sense of history and development among the offerings. First was the opening solo from Water Music which set a vastly different tone to that of Shuffle’s previous frivolity. In response to Handel’s measured strings, the choreography was muscular, restrained and commanding, with deep pliés and outstretched arms. Phrases from Strider, originally choreographed for Christopher Banner were danced by four dancers in monochrome grey, rebounding leaps echoing amid the silent stage.

For Movements from Petrushka, a beautiful interplay took place between dancer and the pianist who performed Stravinsky’s score live on stage. Just as the dancer seemed on the brink of surrender to the music, he would rise from his angst ridden jerks to command it. Antique from Rumours Visions forged a moment of poise – a dreamy duet born from exchanges of weight and turning lifts, it appeared almost prayer-like in performance. Equally, *Shimmer*, seemed a homage of some kind, with Martin Lawrance exuding an elegant strength as the shadow of his movements played out across the floor. In total contrast, came Dutiful Ducks, originally Michael Clark’s solo – a quixotic, syncopated movement play with the poetry of Charles Amirkhanian. Fiendishly swift and rhythmic, it seemed impossible to separate the movement from the intonations of speech which it sought to articulate. Red Run tested the bodily parameters of its two dancers in their quest for dominance and exploration of counterbalance, and Fingerprint was a final reticent solo ever-turning, with loops and falls, tripping over the music of Bach. The Men in My Life ended with the men’s ensemble from *The Signal Of A Shake* which rounded off the catalogue of works in ebullient form. Erupting with percussive jumps, the piece combined baroque ornamentation with a contemporary off-kilter style, culminating in a collective throwaway flourish of each dancer’s arm.

Finally, Blow Over, a work jointly commissioned by Sadler’s Wells and Dance Umbrella brought the evening’s programme to a whirling close. The thumping score of Philip Glass’ Changing Opinion and *Lightning* _formed the backbone of this dynamic piece. Costumes were black and disco-silver and flashing banks of spotlights flanking the unadorned stage set the electric tone of the work. In contrast to the romance of previous duets and serene homage of the quieter solos, _*Blow Out* presented a mesmerising portrait of dancers as pure force. This was the closest Alston’s dancers got to menacing, rendered war-like by the driven flux and circular patterning, each self possessed and strong. Whilst Alston matched the theatricality of the score with might, at times the relentless electro feel of Glass risked tainting the choreography with a whiff of the kitsch, something which Shuffle, in all its jazzy flair, had successfully managed to avoid. In the articulation, percussion and ease of the movement however, Alston’s trademarks were still in evidence, linking Blow Over inextricably to the rich catalogue which had gone before in 40/60.

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