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Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Richard Alston Dance Company: Looking to the future

Contemporary dance is, loosely speaking, dance by and about contemporary people and their ideas, about what concerns us now, writes Richard Alstonin a guest blog for Everything Theatre. 

Dance is almost everywhere these days, whether it’s in a Zumba workout, or breakdancing in the street or on MTV. Today dance is part of almost all young people’s daily lives. So yes, it has made a huge leap in profile, influencing and exciting many, many more people than say, twenty years ago. In those twenty years so many preconceptions and barriers have been healthily broken down. The multicultural nature of dance has brought people across the world together, which is a really positive thing. Dance is the great healer.

If you decide to dedicate your life to being an artist of whatever kind, the most important influences are the earliest – inspirations which set you well and truly on your way. When I was young I loved the ballets of Frederick Ashton for their expressive physicality and his musical sensitivity. In contemporary dance I loved the work of the Americans Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and the particularly exciting early work of Twyla Tharp. I also was (and still am) crazy about Fred Astaire, the most quirky, elegant tap dancer there has ever been.  When I studied with Merce in New York I went to see a Fred and Ginger movie every week, for two years! They were such a magically attuned pair that I never tired of seeing them dance together.

….audience members have frequently told me, to my utter delight, that dance has helped them to hear more in music.

Studying with Merce I learned so much from his clarity and his tireless sense of investigation. What I never came to terms with was that he chose to make and perform dance separately, independently of music. It has always been music that has made me want to move and it is still my major inspiration – that has never changed. The link between rhythm and movement is so ancient and so instinctive in all human beings that I revel in it and continue to explore the nuances of this extraordinary relationship. When music and dance are put together with proper thought the sum is I believe definitely greater than the parts. Music can enable you to see more in dance and audience members have frequently told me, to my utter delight, that dance has helped them to hear more in music. When they say that I couldn’t be more pleased.

What has also given me huge pleasure is the wonderful talent of all the dancers that I have worked with and watched. They enable my work to happen and have always influenced what I do. The choreographer Siobhan Davies was one of four patient young women who stood by me and helped me in my struggle to put my first dance together in 1968. And so it has gone on for forty seven years: now I’m making a new piece for one of my extraordinary current company dancers Liam Riddick and a former Richard Alston Dance Company dancer Jonathan Goddard, returning to work with us again in this our 20th anniversary year.

One sees all sorts of young people trying their hand at creating dance, but when you see the real thing, you know. 

Mazur, to Chopin Mazurkas, is being especially made for our At Home programme which is at The Place in June. In this programme we also include the brand new Opening Gambit, a lightning fast company dance by my colleague Martin Lawrance, and works by two younger choreographers each starting out much as I did in 1968. Joseph Toonga studied at London Contemporary Dance School and began to develop his choreography in their workshop performances. One sees all sorts of young people trying their hand at creating dance, but when you see the real thing, you know. Joe is the real McCoy. His movement comes from a combined Hip Hop and Contemporary background and it’s terrific to see my dancers move in a different way. Hip Hop uses sharply syncopated movements isolating different parts of the body. In my work, home territory for my dancers, a more lyrical flow connects the whole body as it moves through space. What I feel we have in common is an acute attention to music and a concern with making complex textured movement that is exact but feels free. I’ve also asked Ihsaan de Banya, a dancer in my company for two years, to create a new dance for us. The idea is to show that anniversaries don’t have to be nostalgic or self-congratulatory but can look forward and show our strengths right now. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.

To make a new piece I start by soaking myself in the music I’ve chosen until I seem to feel it in my bloodstream.

Our Company’s home is The Place, just near Euston, a building buzzing with activity. We fit our daily schedule into the other classes that fill the building day and night. So we start at eleven (not so early) and work through to six with a break for lunch. We do a one and a half hour class every day and then work on new dances and learning repertory. To make a new piece I start by soaking myself in the music I’ve chosen until I seem to feel it in my bloodstream. Then I go into the studio, but with no movement prepared – I’ve learnt to trust my instincts. With the dancers there, I throw them movement very quickly, making a lot of material in a short time, then I stand back and look more slowly. What I do feels like carving in the air with energy; it’s a bit like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre!

But of course dance also has a human side and the focus of the dancers and what connects them is so important. I want dance to be lively, as if it’s just been improvised, but at the same time I want it to be exactly judged and musically phrased. I ask a lot, but I let the dancers play with the movement to make it their own; then, and only then do I feel it can reach an audience.

To dance is to do something fundamentally joyous. 

I’m always thinking of how a complicated dance can be “read” by the people watching; how to make it clear. I don’t want to be patronising or feel that I’m talking down to the audience – as far as I’m concerned they must be unusually intelligent people to have chosen to come and see my work. I love dance to be exhilarating and uplifting. To dance is to do something fundamentally joyous; it’s a deeply healing activity and I really want the audience to be excited rather than intimidated, to leave the theatre stirred, not shaken.

Richard Alston CBE, Artistic Director of The Place and Richard Alston Dance Company.

Alston At Home is at The Place, London: 10-13 June 2015. www.theplace.org.uk/athome

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Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.