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Richard Alston Dance Company

'Stampede'

By Lyndsey Winship

18/03/03 - Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton

I don’t think it’s intentional, but in Richard Alston’s duets, the dancing couples often seem to make the shape of a swooping bird with outstretched wings. Just have a look at the publicity photos. Alston isn’t one for rudimentary symbolism, but it’s a fitting image nonetheless. The choreography does express a kind of soaring freedom; the dancers’ thrown-open lines and easy leaps are each like taking a deep, life affirming breath.

No more so than in ‘Stampede,' set to a set of Moorish-influenced medieval Italian dances. Dancing through duets and ensemble sections, the company move with great ease. These are the movements a dancer’s body falls into naturally, there’s no constriction or confinement. They are swept along by the momentum of the music in one rolling motion. The steps and shapes are familiar but the choreographer continually comes up with new combinations and unexpected ways of seamlessly turning one movement into another.

In ‘Stampede’ the dancers’ peasant-style costumes nod to the origins of the music, keeping a folk feel to the proceedings. In ‘Slow Airs, Almost All’ (to Mozart’s arrangements of Bach fugues for string trio) we are clearly contemporary, in modern dress and a more conversational dance style, in keeping with the dialogue of the three string instruments onstage. The momentum persists, despite the slower tempo, each dancer in an ongoing unfurling of steps. It’s when the pulse accelerates however that our hearts race too, turning pleasant diversion into energetic excitement. And it’s in the quick counterpoint section that the dancers prove their unflappable musicality. It may feel like joyful abandon but each gesture is completely controlled.

Alston’s is a chameleon-like language -- it changes colour depending on the musical context. The programme closes with ‘Rumours, Visions’, an interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s sublime ‘Les Illuminations’ (which was in turn based on the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud). Alston is rarely concerned with character, but here are the workings of Rimbaud’s mind laid bare, here is real drama. The movements are recognisably Alston’s but they embody totally different meanings, infused with the torment and painful beauty of Britten’s music (particularly the soul-stirring tenor voice).

The precocious young poet Rimbaud had a short and turbulent life, tormented by wild visions and strange dreams and obsessively in love with the older poet Paul Verlaine. Alston brings out the poet’s inner demons, personifying his skittering, racing thoughts, spinning around the stage. This piece has the most contrasting dynamics between intense confusions and the sparse more thoughtful sections, like the moving duet between Rimbaud and his lover, incidentally, so much more tender than any male/female duet we’ve seen.

Martin Lawrence, Alston’s star dancer, reprises his role as the poet and throughout the programme brings more weight to his performance than usual, something we’ve been willing for a while. The company are as assured and enchanting as ever -- though not always completely in unison -- and will no doubt continue their high flying.

Edited by David Watson.

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