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Posted on April 13, 2018

Carnaval 3 Elly Braund and Liam Riddick. Photo by Chris Nash
Barbara Newman considers works by Richard Alston and Alain Platel

Violette Verdy once told me, “Style is a moving field, moving sand. It can be reproduced but it doesn’t always necessarily reflect something that is present or actual, so it has to be done for itself, as a demonstration. It’s like yoga. Yoga is not just a collection of exercises—it’s a way of considering life.”

Richard Alston’s anniversary programme, Mid Century Modern, at Sadler’s Wells reminded me of her comment, because his choreography so clearly represents his way of considering life. He often cites Cunningham and Ashton as important influences, and the dances he has made over the course of 50 years overflow with musicality, emotional resonance and sweet humor, exactly the characteristics that many of today’s younger dancemakers tend to avoid.

Elly Braund and Liam Roddick in Proverb, part of Mid Century Modern. Photograph: Elliot Franks

While this programme testifed to Alston’s artistic longevity, the selections from nearly every decade of his creative history also explained to me why I return to his work again and again. Drawing inspiration directly from the music he chooses, he never repeats himself and never recycles his past successes. So each dance engages you differently, and you never confuse one piece with another.

In this celebratory evening, his fascination with Cunningham technique and his sensitive understanding of its mercurial possibilities shone from a snatch of Rainbow Bandit (1977). Steve Reich’s closely woven, minutely shifting harmonies flew into your eyes from Proverb (2006), and Dutiful Ducks (1982), a three-minute solo originally for Michael Clark, twisted the tangled repetition of the title’s two words into a coil of sharp small moves so quick and surprising that they raised an appreciative laugh.

New this year, the solo Syrinx drew its gracious breadth and sinuous legato from Debussy’s delicate flute solo, and the complete Carnaval (2017), performed in fervent partnership with the onstage pianist, Jason Ridgway, revelled unabashedly in Schumann’s heartbreaking romanticism.

Requiem pour L. Photograph: Chris van der Burght

The Belgian choreographer Alain Platel considers life from another perspective, but, like Alston, he has a remarkable gift for creating uniquely personal responses to music, none of which resembles any other. His latest piece, Requiem pour L.—made collaboratively with his music director, Fabrizio Cassol—involves a multiracial cast of musicians, classical singers and African singers in a staged rendition of Mozart’s Requiem. Not precisely a dance, the haunting result is closer to a concert performance of the requiem, shot through with shared action and musical material borrowed from jazz, opera and African traditions. Platel has distributed expressive movement generously so that, whether listening, playing or singing, everyone eventually sits, stands, lies down, jives, stamps and jumps to various sections of the mass. Behind the visible music, a silent black and white film shows a woman’s face during her slow dying—the requiem they sing is for her, pour elle.

A tom tom thuds a steady heartbeat. Propelled by rhythm, three singers strut and sway as if enmeshed in voodoo. Suddenly immobile in outstretched positions, the entire cast adopts the woman’s endurance, and you notice the effort it takes to die and how patiently she waits. To Mozart’s dancing lilt, one man climbs the space in front of him like a ladder, mounting toward heaven or freedom.

More than 20 years ago, Platel’s company, les ballets C de la B, danced his Bernadetje at the Roundhouse, the first theatrical event in that space for 15 years. Featuring 11 people, mostly teenagers, and five bumper cars, the piece contained a magnificent passage for three men, circling the stage on one of the cars, that I remember to this day. Now he has made an equally memorable work, a ceremony of celebration and mourning seamlessly crafted from simple movements and a vibrant tapestry of music.

No wonder we keep returning to these two intrepid choreographers. It takes curiosity and talent to realise the challenges they set themselves, and both are in short supply.

Barbara Newman reviews Pippin and English National Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the April 2018 issue


Top: Elly Braund and Liam Riddick in Carnaval. Photograph: Chris Nash

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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