Review: Richard Alston Dance Company in To Dance And Skylark/ Movements From Petrushka/Overdrive at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 3 & 4 March 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 5 March 2010

Richard Alston Dance Company, 3-4 March, Sadler's Wells. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Reviewed: 3 March 2010

For a decade, this company only performed work by Richard Alston. Now, its programmes routinely include an outlet for the choreographic tributary that Martin Lawrance is developing, slightly apart from the mainstream of his mentor’s work. For this Sadler’s Wells show, the newest piece (first performed a year ago) was Lawrance’s To Dance And Skylark, a fast-paced baroque ballet to two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti (No.s 2 and 3), followed by two Alston classics: his Movements from Petrushka from 1994 (the year this company was formed) and _*Overdrive* _from 2003.

Lawrance’s emergence as a major choreographer in his own right is now a matter of fact. His work inherits Alston’s predilection for creating an agreeable dialogue between dance and music, using much the same balletic movement with fast, disciplined footwork and uncluttered, elegant lines. In To Dance And Skylark – a title derived from an old naval command for physical exercise – Lawrance moulds the influences of baroque dance into his own accents on the unmistakable language of Alston, creating a velvety flow of bodies dissecting space that brings Bach’s harpsichords, violas and trumpets into a vivid, sculptural realisation. Occasionally, it might seem that dancers had forgotten, momentarily, the flow of movement through their arms and upper body but then this casualness immediately transforms back into a clarity of pristine lines and curves. I was particularly taken by the speed and attack of the Columbian dancer, Andres de Blust-Mommaerts, to whom the eye was regularly drawn even in such uniformly excellent company.

Alston’s Overdrive is a taste that I’ve gradually acquired. The relentless minimalism of Terry Riley’s keyboard study #1 can be a barrier to its enjoyment. But, it is in fact the key. If choreographers could gain marks from a tariff of technical difficulty, then Alston deserves full credit for taking this music on. It provides a complex torrent of repetitive rhythms in progressively shortening phrases into which Alston fixes a complex layering of movement for three distinct groups of dancers. Three women in red are the principal agents, or narrators of the work, often moving in contrasting or opposing patterns to two other groups, respectively of five men and three women. An exhilarating momentum builds throughout the 20 minutes of the work’s duration, occasionally slackening only to tighten again immediately, until the layers peel away from 11 dancers to six, then four and finally two as the music comes to an abrupt end. I didn’t get it when I first saw Overdrive in 2004 and now I think it’s one of the most technically difficult and challenging of modern dances, radiating an infectious joy through the effervescence of the choreography and its highly-disciplined execution by an ultra-elite ensemble of dancers. The counting alone must require the most intense concentration. Learn to love the music and you will come to love this dance.

Movements from Petrushka, on the other hand, is the revival of an Alston work that defeats me with its cleverness. At its heart, the work revolves around linking the sufferings of Petrushka, the tragic puppet hero of the famous Diaghilev ballet, with the mental decay of the role’s originator, Nijinsky. A crowd of Russian-styled performers appear as if they may break into a Cossack dance at any second and the central stage area is occupied by a grand piano, breaking up the performance space in a way that I found difficult to decipher. I sense that it will be a work to reward further viewings and it invites an almost forensic analysis of the movement to determine its references but, for now, the most impressive aspect was the expert rendition of Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka by Jason Ridgway and the reinterpretation of Benois’ backcloth designs by Liz Reed (with supporting research by Jane Pritchard, the indefatigable head of the Society for Dance Research).

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