Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Richard Alston—Clarity and Conviction

Roughcut. Photo: Chris Nash
Richard Alston's choreography speaks through its form. His movement is classically informed, but done without shoes, and in relatively androgynous clothing, less to distract from the crisp structures made by the phrases. He favors deep pliés in second; sailing, upright leaps with a bent hind leg and arms in fourth (reminisicent of Merce, with whom he studied; pictured above), partners in artful, tranquil positions; and explosive jetés from a near standstill. Despite the erosion of traditional gender roles, generally the men get the showy moves. 

Alston's choreography is best suited for compact men. The standouts in his current company, seen at Peak Performances in Montclair on Dec 16, are Pierre Tappon and Liam Riddick, of a like size. Both dance with lucidity and purpose, "sticking" the deceptively difficult jeté landings, and hovering for an extra moment in relevés. They are both small enough so that even in their maximum extensions in circling leaps, they manage to stay safely within the bounds of the stage. Taller people might fail at this. Tappon exudes a serenity and intelligence that grounds the dances, while Riddick has a more aggressive, percolating energy.

Liam Riddick in Unfinished Business.
Photo: Chris Nash
The three works on the program were in a contained dynamic and emotional range. Alston knows his strengths and sticks with them, but also matches pieces of music that create hermetic universes to breathe atmosphere into the sere vocabulary. Roughcut was performed to Steve Reich's "counterpoints" for clarinet/guitar, providing a convenient division of parts. Unfinished Business was to Mozart and Busoni, which offered the temptation to wander into the illustrative or picturesque. A Ceremony of Carols incorporated the women of Prima Voce choir upstage in a moving and tender seasonal celebration. A bench standing on its end transformed into a cross for a few minutes, a surprising and moving detail. One drawback—Alston tends to repeat himslef. The first two works both ended with the dancers moving downstage and freezing, first with their arms about their heads, elbows bent, and then raised straight. It felt too similar unless they were two parts to one dance; there were other notable repetitions that felt recycled.

It's somewhat lazy, but it's useful to put things in perspective by comparing Alston's dances to work that you might read in similar ways, such as Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, even a little bit of abstract Paul Taylor. Morris less so, but they have all identified specific vocabularies and stuck with them, built bodies of work on dance's formal aspects, and considered music, or its disregard, to be an important element. Alston, like Cunningham, is on the clinical side of things. The dancers relate lightly, but more in terms of physical proximity than emotionally. There are no stories, no outright scenarios. A world arises from the dancers moving onstage in relation to one another, in that moment, to that music. In that regard, it's twice as difficult to do well without narrative lifelines or simple dramaturgical fallbacks. On the other hand, its contained range at times feels like it's thirsting for these life-affirming totems. Still, Alston's clarity and conviction gratify.

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