Facing the Music

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Richard Alston Dance Company
20th Anniversary Performances
Sadler’s Wells, London, January 26 & 27, 2015

Music rarely takes a backseat to choreography for Richard Alston. The choreographer—a staple to Britain’s modern dance scene and artistic director of Richard Alston Dance Company—is well known for crafting a symbiotic relationship between song and dance, his rep full of pieces in which these elements drink from and breathe life into one another in equal measure.

RADC’s latest bill, specially commissioned to mark the company’s twentieth anniversary, gives music its usual prominence: live vocals and complex notes shine beside a rich body of contemporary choreography. Along with two London premieres (Alston’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” and RADC associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s “Burning,” both created in 2014), the four-piece programme features the world premiere of Alston and hip-hop veteran Ajani Johnson-Goffe’s jointly choreographed “Nomadic,” and a restaging of Lawrance’s “Madcap” (2012).

First up is “Rejoice in the Lamb,” which dramatises the themes of Christopher Smart’s like-titled poem against a rapturous cantata that Benjamin Britten forged from the poem in the 1940s. Smart was feverishly devoted to Christianity, and Nicolas Bodych does a brilliant job communicating this wide-eyed fervour, his frantic leaps visibly galvanising the other nine dancers, who eagerly dart and dash at his behest. Ishaan de Banya, meanwhile, puts in a strong showing as Smart’s cat and steadfast companion Jeoffry, and Montclair State University Vocal Accord handles Britten’s choral score with aplomb, transitioning gracefully from its bouncy beginning to eerie end.

One of the piece’s biggest strengths is the way the dancing syncs neatly with the verse at hand without becoming overly literal. Smart punches the air as the choir intones about “personal valour” and clutches his chest when they sing of “the echo of the heavenly harp,” but by and large the choreography seeks to reflect the text’s fanatic tone rather than its narrative content. There are distinct echoes of Merce Cunningham in the movement vocabulary, what with its emphasis on rhythm and many fleet-footed transitions; meanwhile, the whimsical half-moons traced by the five women’s flowing skirts call to mind Martha Graham’s seminal “Appalachian Spring.”

“Burning” proves a neat companion piece to “Rejoice in the Lamb” in that it also features a single-minded man who wields great influence over others. Here the protagonist is the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (Liam Riddick), whose celebrity inspired a culture of ecstatic obsession known as ‘Lisztmania’ among female fans across Europe in the nineteenth century. The piece centres on Liszt’s turbulent, decade-long relationship with Countess Marie D’Agoult (Nancy Nerantzi), whose love for the musician was painfully undermined by his repeated infidelity. Fittingly the drama plays out against Liszt’s stormy Dante Sonata, played with vigour on stage by Amit Yahav.

Nerantzi dances her character with a beautiful balance of strength and fragility. Her striking poise and clingy red dress initially evoke a predatory femme fatale vibe, but her willingness to tolerate Liszt’s promiscuity reveals a vulnerable side—one he continually exploits with exaggerated reconciliatory gestures and assurances of his devotion. Liszt isn’t an easy figure to root for, but Riddick deftly captures the lothario’s Casanova charms, moving sensually and tenderly with each woman who catches his fancy. Even more impressive is the calculated sense of abandon he brings to his duets with Nerantzi. Liszt is forever falling to his knees and throwing his head back in apparent anguish, but these tinges of melodrama are a form of dramatic irony: what Marie perceives as passionate the audience can easily recognise as disingenuous and manipulative.

The programme’s latter two pieces are more abstract than its first two. “Nomadic” takes its lead from the Shukar Collective’s album Urban Gypsy, which overlays traditional Ursari music—native to the Roma community—with modern electronic beats. The choreography is likewise layered: interspersed with Alston’s characteristic angularity and lyricism are whispers of Johnson-Goffe’s signature street moves.

The alliance sounds terrifically original on paper, but I found it a little underwhelming: the dancing just doesn’t pack the same punch as the music. The choreography is deft at highlighting and fusing the athleticism inherent to each choreographer’s brand of dance, but several sections feel shaky, and the group doesn’t move as cohesively as seems appropriate for a work that celebrates a communal and collaborative culture. Still, the piece shows a lot of promise, and with some polishing it could become a colourful addition to the company’s repertoire.

Finally there’s Lawrance’s “Madcap,” a two-parter set to the raucous stylings of pop-influenced composer Julia Wolfe (played live here by sextet Icebreaker). Jerky, jazzy dancing accented with sharp turns and abrupt start-stops cleverly reflects the music’s experimental edge, as does the bare bones stage design, which depicts something like a jazz studio or another simple creative space. The six dancers move with great clarity and coherence, and the partnering in particular is a pleasure to watch: Riddick and Nerantzi come together again, this time for a manic, red-hot duet egged on by Wolfe’s rapid-fire strings. The pair’s energy engulfs the stage, and with the musicians’ final frenzied notes the show truly goes out with a bang.

 

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