In 1994, Richard Alston founded Richard Alston Dance Company, he also became artistic director of The Place, the most highly regarded center for dance and dance resources in the world. His company is housed there and when I arrived to meet him for an interview, he apologized. He needed to be in the studio to work with a newcomer who would be replacing an injured dancer in his next show. I was in England while doing a story on British dance for The Philadelphia Inquirer in1998 and I'd hoped to see some of The Place's huge collection of dance videos. I said I had an appointment to do that after our interview, but if that could be switched, I wouldn't mind. Alston kindly selected a dozen or so of Britain's best companies before leaving me at a viewing station.
Five hours later, while still trying to collect and classify all of them in my head, Alston came by with a cup of tea and his promised, if too brief interview, in which he said "Merce Cunningham, Sir Frederick Ashton and Fred Astaire were my early influences." That was just about all I jotted down before Alston was called away to handle some sort of plumbing issue in the creaky old building near the St. Eustace tube station. He offered to meet me again in an hour, but I had squeezed in another appointment.
Back then the Arts Council of England (a behemoth to our mousy National Endowment on the Arts) was bestowing roughly $323 million to the arts annually, much of it from the national lottery. More than 60 million pounds was allocated to dance through 10 regional arts boards with The Place alone granted 5 million pounds (about $8.3 million) that year. Alston would not have to run between personnel and plumbing issues for long.
Tooling around to seven cities with my husband at the left wheel, I later saw, in person, several of the companies that I had viewed on video and that were funded by the Arts Council. Even though it was mid-summer, the arts scene in each city offered a variety of dance. We saw Bullies Ballerinas and Phoenix Dance Company in their posh digs at the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds. The Bullies are three black ballerinas whose Afrocentric dance breaks into lindy, their real forte. Phoenix is also a black company that says it "embodies the spirit of a black British experience." In Nottingham, we saw the Featherstonehoughs (pronounced Fanshaws and all male) and in Birmingham the Cholmondelays (pronounced Chumleys and all female.) Bedlam was five geek-chic women who angle their wry visions through Feldenkrais and tai-chi.
If money talks, it dances too. All were first rate, original and, even in the humbler black box settings, enjoyed high-end lighting and tech support.
In general, support like this allows choreographers like Alston to create shows with higher production values than are typically seen on American stages. For instance, live music accompanies many of his works.
But for the American stage, only The Devil in the Detail
will enjoy that privilege. Pianist Jason Ridgway will play Scott Joplin's piano rags on stage. On the last tour, this dance hit the critics as a "delight" and a "lollipop." Full of seduction and cockiness, the footwork lights on the music like butterflies in a spring garden.
The grandeur of Volumina
, set to Gyorgy Ligeti's 1969 work, Coulee, was taken much more seriously by the critics, prompting one to say "the chthonic forces of nature make it the most satisfying of Alston's works to date."
Also on the program,Red Run
is set to Heiner Goebbels music of the same name and described as jazzy. But Goebbels' music goes much deeper, diving and swooping between rock and jazz, taking the dancers and the dance far below the surface until their solos and duos swell the work with atmospheric imagery.
Alston is not making another East Coast stop this time around, so if you want to see his company, hop the train or the Chinese bus and come on down. He opens Thursday on the University of Pennsylvania Campus's Annenberg Center and runs four shows through Saturday night.
Richard Alston Dance Company
3680 Walnut Street
Phila., PA 19104
Richard Alston's The Devil in the Detail
Photo © & courtesy of Richard Alston
Richard Alston's Red Run
Photo © & courtesy of Richard Alston