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Richard Alston; Yolande Yorke-Edgell; Internationaal Theater Amsterdam

Posted on March 26, 2019

The news of Richard Alston’s knighthood in the New Year Honours List followed the announcement, two months earlier, that his company will close in 2020. Having made dances for 50 of his 70 years and led his own troupe to its 25th anniversary, Sir Richard might be considered the backbone of contemporary dance in the UK. His repertory, teaching and unflagging artistic dedication cannot easily be replicated, so if losing the company’s long-term home at The Place sets him adrift, his dancers, colleagues, students and public will all share the loss.

George Balanchine sometimes reminded his dancers to complete two pirouettes and no more; beyond that, he said, people just count. Today, many professionals ignore his advice, and many viewers see only steps on stage, though every performance contains much more. Alston’s current touring programme shows you music. In Proverb (2006), the ensemble echoes the echoing voices of Steve Reich’s score, rebounding off the close vocal harmonies in overlapping duets and in twin trios, simultaneous in time but individual in shape. In Brahms Hungarian (2018), the melodies for solo piano drive the dancers into courtly flirtations, ruffle their noble manners with playful teasing and stretch their lyrical lines in gentle romantic arcs.

Dipping into his fascinating backlog, Quartermark explores the serenity of Monteverdi in Fever (2001), the unworldly eeriness of Ravel in Shimmer (2004), and the buoyancy of Bach in Bach Dances (2018). The finale of The Signal of a Shake (2000) races Handel to an exhilarating conclusion by repeating its final dance sequence at twice its original speed. Alston made all these pieces, but it’s fair to say the scores he chose made him make them as he did.

Pictured: Richard Alston Dance Company in Brahms Hungarian. Photographs by Chris Nash.

For Yorke Dance Project’s 20th anniversary, its founder Yolande Yorke-Edgell arranged a celebratory touring programme that features her own Imprint; a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground; Sophia Stoller’s commissioned Between and Within; and Communion, a new creation by Robert Cohan. During the Dance Insights lecture-demonstration about them at the Old Sorting Office in Barnes, I realised the programme’s underlying subject is continuity.

Interspersed with excerpts from Playground, Susie Crow, who appeared in the original cast in 1979, and Edd Mitton, the company’s rehearsal director, discussed the laborious process of revival, listing their tools as Benesh notation (a sample was printed in every programme), memory, knowledge of the choreographer’s output and, if possible, first-hand experience with him. Elementary information, you might think, but the rapt viewers kept whispering, “I never knew that.”

Yorke-Edgell explained that Imprint honoured the dancemakers who had crucially influenced her: Alston, for whom she danced; Cohan, her mentor; and Bella Lewitzky, whose company she joined in California in 1994. As clearly as her words, the excerpts captured the distinct qualities she had absorbed from them and sharpened our awareness of their characteristic styles.

Between and Within emerged from Stoller’s residency at the Cohan Collective in Los Angeles, which Yorke-Edgell formed in 2015 to support young choreographers and composers. In an hour, we saw the links between inspiration, creation, revival and tribute, a delicate chain of continuity in a nutshell.

Pictured: Yorke Dance Project in Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground. Photographs by Pari Naderi.

Unexpectedly, the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam revealed something else about dance in its haunting version of Euripides’ Medea at the Barbican. Delivered in Dutch with English surtitles, written and directed by Simon Stone, the production’s tone is so modern that the tale of personal betrayal and murderous vengeance could be tonight’s news. In fact, like television, live video gave us a second, close-up view of the actors as we watched them, merely life-size, below the huge screen.

Text aside, there for all to see was the remarkable power of space. Widely separated white walls defined the downstage area, with an unbounded curve of blazing white emptiness visible behind them. Exposing the actors mercilessly, that shadowless void forced us to notice the shifting emotional distance between the characters, their physical puniness in an indifferent world, and the inescapable fact that no one but you can ever completely understand your behaviour. How often does choreography achieve that?

Pictured: Scenes from Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s Medea. Photographs by Sanne Peper.

Main image: Richard Alston Dance Company in Brahms Hungarian. Photograph by 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 http://barbaranewmandance.net

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