Review: Richard Alston Dance

2015 marks the season of Richard Alston Dance Company’s twentieth anniversary, and to celebrate the group are currently touring a selection of seven works from their back catalogue, performing various permutations of these each night. For their two dates at the Oxford Playhouse (26th and 27th May), RADC offered four pieces: a trio of Britten settings choreographed by Alston (Rejoice of the Lamb, Hölderlin Fragments, and Illuminations), and a work by Associate Choreographer Martin Lawrance (Burning), accompanied by a live piano performance of Liszt’s Dante Sonata.

Rejoice of the Lamb’s text was written by Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century poet and devout Christian whose religious mania – he would often pull passers-by in the street to their knees to pray with him, as the programme notes inform us – led to his eventual confinement to a mental asylum. Britten’s festival cantata is equal parts mysterious and jaunty, its lithe organ runs and shifts of register both depicting the poet’s feverous piety and encouraging all to rejoice alongside him.

Rejoice of the Lamb © Richard Alston Dance Company
Rejoice of the Lamb © Richard Alston Dance Company

Alston’s fervent and joyful choreography reflects Smart’s eccentricities and Britten’s music excellently; the poet becomes a character onstage, joined by his beloved cat Jeoffrey, which is afforded a seventy-four-line section in the full-length poem. The autumnal costume design was wholly appropriate, highlighting Smart’s pervasive preoccupation with flowers, which he considered ‘peculiarly the poetry of Christ.’ It is appropriate, then, that the jubilant work closes with the ensemble surrounding Smart in a floral formation, the poet-dancer at the centre, as Britten’s chorus cries a celebratory ‘Hallelujah’.

The Hölderlin Fragments, as the collection’s title suggests, consists of short snippets of text, some evocative in their brevity, all underpinned by an unshaking Hellenic idealism. Britten’s settings flit between agitation and calm, and Alston followed these changes in mood closely and keenly. In keeping with the length of the fragments, ideas were sketched out without much development, while continuity between the different songs of the cycle – in terms of the dancers onstage and thematic exploration – was minimal. Such an approach wholly befitted Hölderlin’s text, and indeed Britten’s setting, and the restless pace of the work made it the most dynamic of the four performed.

Holderlin Fragments © Richard Alston Dance Company
Holderlin Fragments © Richard Alston Dance Company

While perhaps a nod to Dante’s Inferno, the title of Burning principally alludes to Liszt’s desire and promiscuous behaviour. Liszt shared an intense but troubled romance with Countess Marie d’Agoult (a role played by Oihana Vasga Bujan, giving the best performance of the night), despite continued affairs with others. The duets and ensemble passages suitably brimmed with sexual energy, with Marie fighting against a trio of other women vying for Liszt’s attention, who quite literally lay with the composer at various moments during the work. Less convincing were Liszt’s solo sections, which fell rather flat when compared with the energy and physical exertion of the group work. The composer’s lolling head and flailing limbs were too overstated a reference to his impassioned words, written in response to his love for Marie – ‘Let me be wild and crazy’.

Illuminations, the oldest and arguably most ambitious of the works performed, was an appropriate closing act, choreographed to Britten’s setting of the eponymous work by Rimbaud. Again, the music provided a sturdy springboard from which Alston’s choreography could leap. In one scene, an idealised royal couple shares a courtly dance, gifting the opportunity for a variety of movement – an opportunity that Alston seized – while Rimbaud’s adventurous spirits were complemented by the infectious energy of the string section, which alternated between playful pizzicati and jagged bowing. The lighting, which was fairly restrained for much of the evening, here came further to the fore, helping to delineate the extremes of up- and downstage in an effective manner little explored elsewhere. Never was this more effective than at the piece’s close, as Rimbaud backed into darkness as the stage lights progressively dimmed around him.

Illuminations © Richard Alston Dance Company
Illuminations © Richard Alston Dance Company

Alston and Lawrance are both sensitive to the structure of the music they choose, and there were occasionally hints tonight at a more analytical approach to interpretation. Take as an example the two-part counterpoint of ‘Lines of Life’, the final song of the Holderlin Fragments, which acts as a compositional pun on the fragment’s text, ‘The lines of life are varied, perfect with harmony, peace and order.’ Paired dancers seemed at first to complement the knowing musical setting, but this idea – and other such moments peppered throughout the four works – were neither as pronounced nor as fully realised as they could have been.

The diverse programme presented by Richard Alston Dance Company tonight was certainly not short on positives. Given their eager incorporation of poet and composer into the action, though, the company’s choreographers might consider not only the immediately discernible elements of text and music, but also how – and why – these works were constructed and organised in the manner they were. Elaborating upon such creative decisions would supply an intriguing subtext, one reaching beyond programmaticism without compromising the works’ undeniable accessibility.

J. Wadsworth

For more information about Richard Alston Dance Company, please visit their website.

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