Richard Alston Dance Company returns to Meany Hall in splendid shape

By R.M. Campbell

A breeze, both warm and cool, arrived Thursday night at Meany Hall and will stay the weekend. Its name is the Richard Alston Dance Company.

The English company, named after its founding choreographer and artistic director, is known for its sunny, ebullience, the kind that is rather out-of-fashion in today’s rough-and-tumble culture. But as the company proved Thursday night, in an all-Alston program, it is about many things. It provides pleasure the way Paul Taylor does, can divide up space in the manner of Merce Cunningham, can sustain intensity of mood like Twyla Tharp and enjoys elegance, in an abstract way, that reminds one of George Balanchine. Still, in the end, Alston is his own man.

After time spent with several dance companies in England, including Ballet Rambert, he formed his own ensemble in 1994. Since then he has choreographed more than 30 works and as such has become an integral part of the British dance scene, “the doyen of Britain’s contemporary dance creators,” according to one critic. Six years ago the company made its American debut and returned in successive years, including Seattle. I am reminded of Spectrum Dance Theater which tried a similar approach, although as a repertory company and with a more jazz dance influence. Unfortunately it did not succeed. Donald Byrd, its current director, has taken the company in an entirely different direction.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Alston does not strain to make an effect. It seems to come naturally to him, just as his 11 dancers rarely show any strain They are the most lyrical of dancers, sure-footed and quick-footed. The opening work, “Shsuffle It Right” demonstrated the lyric grace of Alston’s dances, their ease with movement, their ability to connect. The last work, “Blow Over,” was an illustration of the dancers’ ability to move very, very quickly and maintain uncommon speed and intensity.

Now 61, Alston is not resting on past accomplishments. On the tour program are “Shuffle,” from 2008, and “Blow Over,” from the same year. Only “Movements from Petrushka” is more than a decade old — 1994 — created for the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, founded by Benjamin Britten. They are a good overview of his work, from the bright and friendly to the poignant. The program is also a good example of his far-ranging tastes in music: from the gritty, gruff songs of Hoagy Carmichael (sung and played by him) to the percussive and compelling rhythms of “Three Movements from Petrushka,” a virtuoso version of three scenes from Stravinsky’s ballet score for solo piano to “Blow Over,” three songs from Philip Glass’ “Songs From Liquid Days”

“Shuffle,” which opened Thursday’s concert, couples wit with a lightness of being. It is fluent, limpid, fast but not too fast, a deft combination of solos, duets and ensemble pieces for the ensemble. The choreography is quite distant from Carmichael’s music, a kind of counterpoint stylistically but not spiritually. Just as the tunes are seemingly casual, off-the-cuff and off-center, so is Alston. Of course, it is all an illusion, particularly on Alston’s part, for his spontaneity is carefully calculated. What makes the whole thing work is its immediacy and easy elegance. I liked the end, a soulful solo for a woman, set to music of “Stardust.”

Alston is essentially a choreographer who favors abstract images over narrative. I think “Petrushka” would be easier to appreciate without the title. One looks for some thread of the ballet’s story. In vain. That search is distracting — at least for me — and takes away from the impact of the movement. I also think as a piece of dance, it does not work easily. The group dances are sometimes effective but ultimately, they seem rather bland, in striking contrast to the vivid music, well-played by pianist Jason Ridgway. A solo figure, representing Petrushka, seems to have no beginning and no end.

“Blow Over” is a work in perpetual movement, a cousin to Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” One cannot take one’s eyes off the dancers. They are in constant motion to Glass’s treatment of pop music. I think Glass sense of this material is quite apt and wonderfully realized. Again, the choreography relates to it but is not in any slavish way. Alston has his dancers do all sorts of interesting steps, never losing any momentum. It is a tour de force for his excellent company. They are at Meany through Saturday night.

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