Review: Richard Alston Dance Company 20th Anniversary - Rejoice in the Lamb, Burning, Nomadic, Madcap - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 26 & 27 January 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 29 January 2015

Richard Alston Dance Company 'Rejoice in the Lamb' Marianna Krempeniou, Nancy Nerantzi & Elly Braund. Photo: Pari Naderi

Performance reviewed: 26 January

Richard Alston has been such a colossus of British contemporary dance for almost half-a-century that it comes as a surprise to realise the dance company bearing his name should only now be celebrating its 20th anniversary. But before getting around to establishing it, Alston had already had an initial foray into running a dance company (the comparatively short-lived Strider in the 1970s), studied with Merce Cunningham in New York and been both resident choreographer and artistic director of Rambert.

Alston’s prolific output now extends to 40 creations for his own company, the latest of which – Nomadic – is the celebratory centrepiece of this anniversary programme. It is a world premiere that also rings the changes, since Alston has made it collaboratively with another choreographer. And, it says much about his own openness to new and youthful ideas that Alston has chosen to work with Ajani Johnson-Goffe, a recent graduate from the London Contemporary Dance School, which shares the premises of The Place with the Alston company. It isn’t exactly their first collaboration since they worked together on Worldwide, Johnson-Goffe’s LCDS graduation performance, last July.

Nomadic shines out like a beacon from the overall programme: visibly, because it is much more brightly lit than any of the other works; and aurally, because the rhythmic, electro-pop score (from the Urban Gypsy album by Romanian group, Shukar collective) is beguilingly different (although stylistically reminiscent of the Electric Gypsyland score for Alston’s Gypsy Mixture). It must work for me since that 2004 piece has long been one of my favourite Alston choreographies and now Nomadic joins the A-list. It is sharp, slick and airily effervescent, changing mood to respond to the diverse impulses of the music, ranging from thrilling to threatening; soulful to sombre. As with any truly holistic collaboration it’s hard to see the join between the inputs of the two creators and it is glib to suggest that the urban influence might be more to do with the younger man (who seems to have attracted the hip hop label in spite of his LCDS training). The simple fact is that Nomadic is recognisably Alston but possesses new ingredients in choreography that articulates the music superbly in a spicy blend of movement that has been born both in the studio and on the streets. It’s a tremendous ensemble piece for eleven dancers, including a guest slot for Johnson-Goffe, looking great alongside another recent LCDS graduate, Ihsaan de Banya.

Two of the other works on this quadruple bill are by Martin Lawrance, the company’s associate choreographer. Lawrance had over 25 works created on him during his twelve years as an Alston dancer and so the stylistic similarity between his movement language and that of his mentor is inherent. But, the overall flavour of his work is very different. Lawrance’s Madcap closed the show as it had done in a different quadruple bill at its 2012 premiere. Like Alston, Lawrance’s choreographic inspiration is driven by the music and Madcap is effectively split into two connected works: the first being set on seven dancers, performing to Julia Wolfe’s Lick; and the second being a brooding duet to the same composer’s Believing. Both pieces were made for the US-based, minimalist, classical/funk crossover group, Bang on a Can All-Stars. It was good to see Wayne Parsons back among the Alston dancers for the Lick section while the current pair of Alston All-Stars, Liam Riddick and Nancy Nerantzi smouldered through the closing sensual duet.

Earlier – closing the first act – we had witnessed the London premiere of Lawrance’s Burning , an ardent examination of Liszt’s love life (danced to the composer’s Dante Sonata, a hook that has reeled in other choreographers, notably Frederick Ashton). Amit Yahav’s live onstage pianism brought a fascinating additional dimension to the spectacle, beautifully interpreted in sensitively expressed choreography, in which Riddick (as Liszt) and Nerantzi (as his married aristocratic lover, Marie D’Agoult) excelled.

The programme had opened with a glorious example of Alston’s own intuitive transposition of music into dance with the London premiere of Rejoice in the Lamb, the partnership recognised through dancers sharing the stage with the choir from Montclair State University and organist, Vincent Carr. Alston has significant prior success in interpreting Benjamin Britten’s work and this expert knowledge is put to even greater effect in his treatment of Britten’s choral setting for Christopher’s Smart’s quirky 18th century poem. There is a rich, expansive eloquence in his choreography and direction that pulls all the many influences into a vivid, delicate and enchanting tapestry. This is dance expressed as an exquisite aesthetic that is as much a masterpiece of visual art as it is of music and dance theatre.

Alston may have chosen to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his company by looking to the future in showcasing the talents of both his heir apparent and a new, young choreographer, fresh from graduation, but on the evidence of Rejoice in the Lamb the quality of output from his own ever-enquiring mind continues to soar. Long may we rejoice in this high luminary of British dance!

Richard Alston Dance Company are now touring the UK, returning to London with four performances at The Place in June

Main photo: Marianna Krempeniou, Nancy Nerantzi & Elly Braund in Rejoice in the Lamb by Pari Naderi

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

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