Friday, January 27, 2017

REVIEW: Richard Alston Dance Company Spring 2017 (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

There's a distinct mix of the traditional with the modern in Richard Alston Dance's Spring 2017 tour, which takes the company from the wilds of North Wales to the hubbub of London, via the US, Germany and Yeovil.

Theatr Clwyd is the first stop on a series of performances that take the company through the first six months of the year, and the Mold audience was lucky enough to have a preview of a brand new piece commissioned by Peak Performances, the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University in New Jersey, before its official premiere on February 2nd in the States.

That piece is Chacony, named after a type of musical composition which reached peak popularity in the 17th century baroque era. Like a pure dance version of Laura Wade's Kreutzer vs Kreutzer (seen at Theatr Clwyd last October), Alston's choreography takes its lead from two pieces of music which are directly interconnected, but quite different. First there's Henry Purcell's Chacony in G minor, then Chacony from 2nd String Quartet Op.36 by Benjamin Britten. Purcell's score is ordered, structured and carefully sequenced, the dancers moving in unison to music reminiscent of a 17th century Viennese masquerade. The polite composition is reflected beautifully by the mannered choreography, the dancers floating around the stage in Peter Todd's diaphanous burgundy outfits as one cohesive group.

However, the music slowly builds to more rapturous refrains, yet ends beautifully with a soft exhale where the dancers float to the ground one by one, confronting the audience in an implacable, almost self-satisfied pause. The choreography is stunning and perfectly evokes the period of Purcell's music.

The piece then moves into Britten's chacony, which is more skittish and fractured in its composition. Although written as a tribute to Purcell's chacony, this piece of music was also influenced by Britten's experience performing with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the only recently liberated German camps of World War Two. What he saw terrified and disturbed Britten, and this is reflected in the composition, which is at turns tentative and fearful, mellow and uplifting. The dancers' outfits have now changed from rich reds to washed out pastels, perhaps reflecting the change in emotional state from unshakeable certainty to a much more challenged and conflicted, indistinct frame of mind.

There are plenty of Alston's favourite choreographic touchstones, such as the rapid leg flicks and sweeping arm work, and the piece returns to the centred calm it set out with, bringing order back for the finale. Chacony is an impressive, evocative new piece which takes two very different pieces of music and melts them together seamlessly and effectively. Montclair should be proud.

Another piece performed at Mold (there's a different programme with each venue) is Stronghold, by Richard Alston's associate choreographer Martin Lawrance. First performed in 2015, this piece is performed to Julia Wolfe's Stronghold (for eight double basses), and the power and presence of those eight double basses is unavoidably felt throughout. The music is rhythmic and insistent, a driver to the dance which builds and strengthens until, by the end, all that is left is a deep, thrumming runaway chord from the very depths of a musical pit. It's almost demonic in its unrelenting force.

The dance starts out as a group piece until it falls away to solos and duets. The piece is more successful and rewarding the fewer people there are on stage, and we are treated to a stunning solo of fluidity, perhaps subtly infused with the odd traditional Spanish form, by Ihsaan de Banya, who has more recently moved into choreography himself. His expertise here shows an intelligence and developing understanding of both performance and interpretation, and he proves a highlight in all three pieces. There's also a strong duet between Nicholas Bodych and Elly Braund.

Stronghold is a strong piece bolstered by some off-kilter, challenging music, but it translates Wolfe's emotive movements perfectly, and is the most modern and refreshing of the pieces presented.

It's back to baroque for Alston's An Italian in Madrid, inspired by Naples-born composer Domenico Scarlatti's trip to Lisbon in 1719 to teach music to the Portuguese princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. The piece is choreographed to Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas and played live on stage by pianist Jason Ridgway.

The piece begins with a sublime duet between de Banya's Scarlatti and a Neopolitan woman played by Jennifer Hayes, who has a delightful, light-as-air presence which is quite infectious. The two look as if they are enjoying the dance, it is reflected in their faces and willingness together.

Princess Maria Barbara was betrothed to Spanish Prince Fernando of the Asturias, and travelled to Spain for the marriage, insisting her Master of Music, Scarlatti, go with her. There, Scarlatti was exposed to the exoticism and passion of Andalusian music, inspiring the hundreds of sonatas he wrote for the princess.

Richard Alston
Guest dancer Vidya Patel is extraordinary as the princess, fusing the traditional stylings of Spanish dance with classical Kathak beautifully. The arms scream Andalusia while the carefully placed bare feet speak of Patel's Indian training. Patel is a joy to watch, and it's no wonder she's been nominated for awards for her performance here.

Also impressive is Liam Riddick as the prince. He's a performer with such precision and concentration, you can see he means and feels every phrase and move. Riddick appears to be one of those dancers who gets completely immersed in the moment of the dance, one of the finest hallmarks of somebody destined for great things. Again, it's no wonder he has been nominated for so many awards during the first decade of his career.

The choreography is suitably mannered to match Scarlatti's score, but in many ways the music undermines the choreography in its repetitiveness. If you're no fan of Scarlatti's gentle, burbling, rise-and-fall refrains, then the music may outlive its welcome, despite the melancholy it evokes. This aside, Ridgway's rendition is faultless and heartfelt and will be a highlight for those who appreciate the Italian's piano sonatas.

A quick word for Fotini Dimou's divine costume design for An Italian in Madrid. They are Andalusia writ large but with subtlety, the girls in floating laced dresses, the men in frilly shirts and matador pants displaying some beautiful designs. The costumes are the icing on the cake of an accomplished, if somewhat stagy, piece.

The stats
Choreographer: Martin Lawrance
Music: Julia Wolfe
Dancers: Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes, Monique Jonas, Nancy Nerantzi, Nicholas Bodych, Ihsaan de Banya, James Muller, Liam Riddick, Nicholas Shikkis
Choreographer: Richard Alston
Music: Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten
Dancers: Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes, Monique Jonas, Nancy Nerantzi, Nicholas Bodych, Ihsaan de Banya, James Muller, Liam Riddick, Nicholas Shikkis
An Italian in Madrid
Choreographer: Richard Alston
Music: Domenico Scarlatti (pianist: Jason Ridgway)
Dancers: Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes, Monique Jonas, Nancy Nerantzi, Nicholas Bodych, Ihsaan de Banya, James Muller, Liam Riddick, Nicholas Shikkis, Vidya Patel
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, January 26th to 27th, 2017. Performance reviewed: January 26th, 2017.

Richard Alston Dance Company (retrieved Jan 27 2017)
Trailer for Stronghold (retrieved Jan 27 2017)
Trailer 1 for An Italian in Madrid (retrieved Jan 27 2017)
Trailer 2 for An Italian in Madrid (retrieved Jan 27 2017)

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