I firmly believe that dance, when done well, is the most eloquent form of art that can exist on a stage. It’s also the case that when it’s done poorly, it can be one of the most excruciating experiences. Not that that could ever be the case with the Richard Alston Dance Company, whose annual visit is one of the few diary dates that we would never miss. We’ve followed the company for donkeys’ years now and each time they come they always deliver something spectacular. Whether it be the stunning dancing of the young talented company members or the stirring choreography produced by Messrs Alston and Lawrance, we sit in awe and appreciation of their extraordinary skills. Last night’s programme was no different and was as varied and as exciting as you could ever wish from a contemporary dance company. The overall standard of performance was astounding.
The first piece was Rejoice in the Lamb; not, as Mrs Chrisparkle suggested, what you say when your Sunday Roast finally arrives, but a beautiful, elegant dance choreographed by Richard Alston to a moving cantata by Benjamin Britten. It’s based on an 18th century poem by Christopher Smart who used to pounce on people in the street to get them to pray with him. Nicholas Bodych gives a wonderful central performance as the enthusiastic poet with a penchant for religious mania. Some moments make you smile, but mostly you come away with a distinct feeling of prayer and spirituality to the whole piece, definitely helped by Britten’s remarkable music. The interaction between the dancers is constantly changing and I recognised moments of strength, care and support as well as scenes of enmity and rejection. A very assured, thoughtful and refined start to the evening.
After a pause next was Holderlin Fragments, another Alston/Britten combination inspired by the work of a poet, this time the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin. Six fragments of his work are set to a song-cycle by Britten and accompanied by the dancers showing incredible agility and forming terrific angles with their bodies. The ladies are presented in light, flowing, elegant dresses but the guys appear to have been clad courtesy of the H&M loungewear department, which made for an interesting visual juxtaposition. All the dancers gave strong, watchable performances but I was particularly impressed with the energy and artistry of Ihsaan de Banya in this piece.
Often the middle dance in a contemporary dance programme is what I term the “difficult” one – harder to understand, more cerebral than physical, the worthy result of an ambitious project that was meant to make you think, and if the enjoyment of the dance suffers as a result, then so be it. Not this time. Burning, the new dance by Martin Lawrance, premiered only last week in Edinburgh, is the stuff that dreams are made on. It takes as its subject Franz Liszt, in his persona as superstar sex symbol, who had all the 19th century European ladies clamouring for his every attention. One of these was the Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had two children despite the fact that she was already married, and that he continued to carry on with – shall we say – his bachelor lifestyle to his heart’s content. Eventually Marie has enough of his philandering and, despite his outrageous protestations and pleadings, dumps him and runs off (and well he deserved it).
I loved every minute of this dance. It’s a gripping drama that unfolds with beautiful clarity and perfect story-telling and features two sensational performances from Liam Riddick and Nancy Nerantzi. Mr Riddick embodies Liszt’s charisma, vanity and flirtiness with the other girls to perfection; and when Miss Nerantzi walks on in that red dress with that look in her eye, you just know that nothing can stop the passionate affair that lies ahead. There’s a stunning love sequence when the two dance in perfect symmetry which really took my breath away. There’s no denying the fantastic rapport they have with each other, but I also really loved the scenes with Miss Nerantzi battling with the other girls who still want a piece of the action – she might as well have shouted “Back off, bitches!” with her body language and challenging expression, daring them to do something about it. Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes and Phoebe Hart bring a marvellously sensual attack to these Liszt-hungry Hungarians. I also enjoyed Nicholas Bodych and Ihsaan de Banya’s fruitless attempts to win back their unruly unfaithful wives, and the whole piece is danced to Jason Ridgway’s superb playing of Liszt’s Danse Sonata live, which gives the piece additional substance and edge. But it’s that fantastic partnership between Mr Riddick and Miss Nerantzi that will stay with me for a long time; I doubt if you could see a better couple on any dance stage at the moment. I think this is probably my favourite piece ever danced by this company (and I can remember as far back as Rainbow Bandit).
The final piece of the evening actually featured in their 2010 programme, Overdrive, and it’s one of those crowd-pleasing pieces with a dynamic soundtrack and exciting choreography. It weaves a wonderful crescendo of movement with blistering techno-throb that really gets under your skin. The whole company get in the act with this assault on your senses, and the demanding attention that they have to give it really pays off and rewards us with a powerful, exhilarating and athletic end to the evening.
This is the most consistently exceptional company performing contemporary dance that I know. After Northampton, their tour takes them to Shrewsbury, High Wycombe, Yeovil, Glasgow and – if it’s more convenient for you – New Jersey. For a fulfilling evening of top quality dance I can’t recommend them too highly. Oh – and if you want to see how to take a curtain call, no one does it with more elegance!