50 and Looking Forward - Interview with Richard Alston

Choreographer and Artistic Director, The Place

by Stuart Sweeney

December, 1998

Image of the Richard Alston Dance company by Chris Nash

If there is a contemporary dance heaven, then it must be something like The Place. This lively complex in central London encompasses all aspects of the art form and it was at this base, which forms such an important part of his life, that I met with Richard Alston. Contemporary dance has only taken root in this country over the last 30 years and this coincides almost exactly with Alston's brilliant career. As a dancer, choreographer, teacher and artistic director of several companies, he has been one of the founders and pathfinders of the form in the UK. It's interesting to note that in the early part of his career his lyrical choreographic style was sometimes compared with Ashton and he has created work for ballet companies including the Royal Ballet. But it is his contemporary work for companies such as Rambert and, more recently, the Richard Alston Dance company for which he is best known. He recently celebrated his 50th birthday [in 1998] and a number or articles have covered his story to date. So for our interview, he agreed that it would be interesting to discuss the future as well as the past.

This idea also reflects Alston's fascinating 50th birthday show at the QEH. He told me that his wish was not only to look back over his career, but also to show pieces from the current repertoire and to premier a new work, 'Waltzes in Disorder', specially commissioned by Dance Umbrella. The programme also reflected his teaching and some of the important dance relationships that he has developed over the past years. Unsurprisingly, these were themes that came up again and again during the interview. One of the strongest pleasures of the evening for him was persuading Siobhan Davies, to take to the stage again. He has worked with her since their early days together at The Place and after some initial reluctance, Davies became excited at the prospect of dancing again with Alston and Darshan Singh Bhuller. The 5-minute piece that Alston prepared worked beautifully and gave us the special pleasure of seeing the mature skills of a trio of great dancers. Nevertheless, all three have moved on and are now fully engaged with their choreography and other interests and have no plans to fill out application forms for NDT3.

Another pleasure of the evening for Alston was the chance to recreate with his own Company, sections from his work of the past 30 years. This included the trio for male dancers from 'Apollo Distraught', which was thought to be lost until Jane Pritchard, Rambert's Archivist, discovered it on an old videotape. Overall, he believes that despite the high quality dancers he has worked with in the past, his current Company performed the pieces as well or better than the original performers and with their own interpretations for the late 90s. He puts this down to the fact that by focussing on his work, his dancers have developed a physical knowledge and understanding of his style, which is more difficult for a repertory company performing pieces by a number of choreographers. As he wrote in the programme notes, 'These 10 young people are the light of my life…' and it is clear from listening to him that they have a very high priority. He maintains that as a choreographer he is a late developer and strongly believes that his work for the Company is evolving each year. Certainly his two programmes at the QEH this year [1998] have been justly well received, both for the quality of the choreography and the skill and artistry of the dancers.

Alston has a clear view that 10 is an ideal size for the Company. This reflects his focus on the potential of solos, pas de deux and small groups of dancers. For example, Alston's exciting recent work 'Red Run' uses just 6 dancers and his 'Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms' is a lyrical 20 minute pas de deux performed to Baroque lute music. He commented that in the recent Merce Cunningham season at The Barbican the main interest came from the small-scale sections rather than when 12 or more dancers were filling the stage.

Alston has always been keen to encourage dancers to explore choreographic opportunities and this tradition continues with Company members such as Martin Lawrence, Jason Piper and Kham Halsackda allowed the time to prepare works for the Resolution! season. This reflects Alston's desire to encourage other choreographers and to provide them with the facilities that he enjoys at The Place. His role as Artistic Director gives him a broad brief and he teaches in The London Contemporary Dance School, which is one of the leading schools in Europe. The opening piece at the 50th birthday evening was an excerpt from 'Early English' an invigorating work danced by 4D, the post-graduate performance group from the School, and it was fitting that this focus of his activity should be highlighted. Alston is excited to see young dancers suddenly leap ahead after months of struggle and as he wanders round the School he is sometimes pleasantly startled by hearing music from one of his pieces drifting out of a studio, where students are learning his work. 4D performs to the highest standards and the annual short season in The Place Theatre [now the Robin Howard Dance Theatre] provides a chance to see young, talented dancers who have had the opportunity to work extensively on new pieces and classics from the contemporary dance repertoire. Despite their talent, it remains difficult for dancers to get work, but 4D graduates have gone on to dance with AMP, Phoenix Dance and Darshan Singh Bhuller amongst others.

Apart from the School and a wide range of evening classes and the Young Place, it is also the base for a number of other exceptional choreographers such as Shobana Jeyasingh and Wayne McGregor. Alston believes that the facility to be able to exchange views with such talents is a vital part of what makes The Place so special. In addition, there is Dance Services [now The Artist Development programme] and facilities such as the Video Place [now Videoworks], which enables students and others to see performances from the Place Theatre and a range of other work. Alston thinks that without access to such facilities even some companies based in the London area can become isolated from what is happening in their field.

The Place has won a Lottery grant for a major redevelopment [now completed], which will provide 10 studios for creative artists and dancers, access for the disabled and a major refurbishment to make the public spaces more welcoming. £1m has already been raised to match the £5m Lottery monies, but a further £1m must be raised if Alston's dream of a choreographic centre is to be realised.

We discussed the state of UK dance. Alston's view is that there is a great deal of work taking place - in some ways, more than the system can support. But he agrees with the view that you must have a lot of weeds in order to have a fertile environment. He admires the work of his contemporaries, Sue Davies and Robert North, but also the new generation such as Jeremy James [sadly deceased], Jonathan Burrows and a choreographer new to me, Ming Lo. For such companies, the 300-seater Place theatre is a vital resource, providing an intimate venue and a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience.

It's not often that you meet someone who has found the perfect place to do the work they love, but I had this impression strongly with Richard Alston. It is refreshing that his perspective is firmly ahead, rather than on his past glories. UK dance lovers already owe him a great debt of gratitude for his important contributions to date and we are in the happy position of knowing that the best may still be to come.


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