Four pieces in one programme – that’s a lot of dance per ticket. You’re both grateful for the bargain and anxious that it might outstay its welcome. As it turned out, Richard Alston’s programme at Sadler’s Wells avoided too much sameness not because of any great variety of choreographic style, but through its variety of music.
First on the programme – and foremost, as it turned out – was a very welcome revival of Alston’s 1998 Red Run, with an uncategorisable and utterly unpredictable score by Heiner Goebbels. Its opening jazz-rock ambience gives way to sliding trombone squeals and a breathy, arrhythmic bass. Scraping strings take over, then out of nowhere come saturated, unsettling sonorities reminiscent of Hitchcock film music, and it ends with an ominously repeated falling two-note motif, thunderously loud.
It’s like several wildly different scores thrown together – not an easy to make a coherent piece from. But it’s spurred Alston to make one of his finest works. The opening solo is hushed but energetic, with Jonathan Goddard skittering swiftly but strongly across the stage, like a stone across water. The following duet, with Pierre Tappon and Peter Furness, is a complete contrast, but no less striking – a tensile, floorbound duel of long, tilted leans, limbs splayed against the floor. Ensemble groups continue the skewed angles, the dancers’ limbs bristling outwards from choreographic knots; and finally, on an empty stage, Rose Sudworth sinks tensely, twistingly to the floor, as if pressed inexorably downwards by the doom-laden score filling the air above her. Nothing is predictable in this piece, yet it never loses its way – and that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Brink, by long-time Alston dancer Martin Lawrance, has a very different score: Eurasian Tango by Japanese composer Ayuo, a low-key, spaced-out take on tango which cleans out tango’s characteristic passion to leave a refined play of subtleties. To this intriguing but unintrusive score, Lawrance sets three duets, each duet itself a refined play of flicked legs and whipped spins. The middle couple (Lawrance, with Sonja Peedo) are the most striking and not just because Peedo, zipping fleetly about the stage, is visibly pregnant. It’s because their choreography is the boldest and clearest. Their race around the stage perimeter teeters between frisky play and serious competition – and it’s only after that you realise these qualities have been present in the more introverted duets all along. Brink ends too abruptly, but it is a finely crafted work, and if Alston’s stylistic influence is evident, that clearly hasn’t weighed Lawrance down. Quite the opposite: he seems buoyed up by it.
Curiously, in his new work Fingerprint, it’s Alston himself who seems weighed down by his stylistic influence. The Bach music is sublime, and it’s wonderful to hear live on stage played by pianist Jason Ridgway. Alston’s choreography is intelligent and sophisticated – but doesn’t project nearly enough. An understated narrative subtext involving the separation and reuniting of two men (Lawrance and Goddard) scarcely breaks the surface, and the intricate compositional plotting of trios and groups comes across as obscure. The exception is a solo by Jonathan Goddard, an outstanding dancer who brings extraordinary precision and physical attack to his roles. But the solo is much more than great dancing. It’s also beautifully composed and emotionally complex, Goddard’s eloquent arms yanking him into odd angles and directions, his shoulders torquing against the twist of his spine. Interestingly, this solo originated in a piece that Alston had begun (though never completed) to a Shostakovich quartet, and he rightly deemed it too good to waste. Perhaps, with Bach, Alston is simply too respectful of his score.
Understatement works well, though, in Alston’s The Devil in the Detail. It’s a lightweight piece set to Scott Joplin piano rags (again played by Jason Ridgway). Avoiding the blatant mugging of Kenneth MacMillan’s Joplin ballet Elite Syncopations, Alston goes instead for wry humour and elegant wit. Nor does he simply follow the music: photographic poses, for example, are frozen mid-moment, nicely offsetting a continual hop-skip rhythm from the piano. Yolande Yorke-Edgell and Martin Lawrance waltz through one episode, lacing the piece with nostalgia; elsewhere Goddard and Furness have some good-natured larking, and the company as a whole sparkles softly in this convivial, feelgood piece – perfectly pitched to end the evening.
With such a programme, it’s not just the variety of music that matters, but how the choreography ‘converses’ with its score. Alston avoids using the music simply as a kind of choreographic script (a habit that can afflict Mark Morris, for example) and instead tries to give the choreography a voice. In Fingerprint, that voice may be too subdued to establish its presence; but in Red Run the dance is truly a ‘strong language’ that engages powerfully with its music. Such pieces are well worth revisiting.