Emma Clegg reviews Richard Alston Dance Company’s 25th anniversary tour, on at Theatre Royal Bath
from 25 – 26 January

Sir Richard Alston’s work is known for its instinctive musicality. There is a poetic connection between the music and his choreography, with one the point of departure for the other. In Alston’s words, “I had very specific ideas about how music and dance should co-operate. I don’t like the ‘bathroom effect’ – when you put on music that makes you feel huge – it’s great in the shower but I don’t want it in the theatre. I want the thing you see to be what uplifts you.” 

Alston choreographed his first work in 1968 as one of the 12 students of the newly formed London Contemporary Dance School and formed the UK’s first independent dance company, Strider, in 1972. He was associated with Ballet Rambert for many years, both as residential choreographer and artistic director. He has choreographed for the Danish Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet and launched the Richard Alston Dance Company in 1994. And following all this, he has just received a knighthood for his services to dance.

His company’s spring programme was tweaked to make it specific to each of its 10 venues, from Bath to Norwich and Yeovil to London. In Bath, Mid-Century Modern is programmed first, representing extracts from his 50 years of choreography. It’s not a consecutive passage through time; the programme dots from 2001 to 2002, to 1972, to 1977, to 2018, to 1999, so the performance plays on ‘random’ mode in date terms.

Alston himself explains this in person at the start of the evening, appearing dramatically with injured lower limb and so sporting a large plastic boot and pyjama bottoms (the only lower wear that could be pulled over it he explains). He appears not as a creative diva, but as gentle, moderate, humorous. The Mid-Century Modern pieces, he says modestly, were selected as he felt they all pitched somewhere near what he was trying to do as a choreographer in those decades.  

The first of Mid-Century Modern, called Fever, set to Claudio Monteverdi’s Si dolce è’l tormento, is a resonant, echoing experience with spotlights directed on Monique Jonas’s silken golden-brown form and following the shimmering trace of her movements. Sharp, yet fluid, driven yet controlled, the dance is hypnotic and full of sustained, musical energy. This piece tunes in tightly to the idea of music and dance entwined – crisp, fluid and enchanting.

Blue Schubert Fragments two dances later (to Schubert’s Adagio from Death and the Maiden), from 1972, was one of Alston’s earliest performances, the first he made that was phrased to music. Starting with one dancer, another joins, then later another, body on body, until the same movement harmony builds and builds and builds until there are nine dancers in echoing harmony and your heart swells with the spectacle with a sense of group energy, of murmurating starlings, of a power beyond. Then Signal of a Shake to a Handel organ concerto is a joyful exuberant group dance, fast and detailed.

Another part of the evening saw Detour (Michael Gordon from the album Timber, remixed by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson), the sound reminiscent of tapping pipes in a cold climate against its frenzied, driving duets and trios, distinctive for its pivotal driving spin with female in horizontal hold, with strains of classical but primeval, raw, and elegant, too, as it builds to its crescendo.

The finale was Brahms Hungarian, traditional Hungarian music, energised by a Gypsy vibe, and full of changing pace – fast-paced bursts and sudden stops. The music had grand poise and country freedom; somehow, twirling and barefooted, the nine dances characterised by their floral gauze costumes capture both. Flowing poise, velvety softness and fluidity, uplifting synchronicity, and driven by heart-flow energy, this absorption of music and dance will dwell in your memory.

RADC perform Brahms Hungarian featuring Monique Jonas, Elly Braund, Melissa Braithwaite, Ellen Yilma. Credit: Chris Nash