Richard Alston Dance and Norwich Theatre Royal still in perfect step
- Credit: Archant
The company has been bringing their perfect partnership of movement and music to Norwich for 18 years recalls founder member and executive director Isabel Tamen.
Passion, mystery and Argentinean Tango, collaboration with BBC Young Dancer grand finalist Vidya Patel and a world premiere of the latest work from the choreographer whose name the company bears.
The visit of Richard Alston Dance Company to the Norwich Theatre Royal is an annual treat for dance fans from across the region, a date to be marked in the calendar.
For two decades the contemporary dance ensemble, led by acclaimed choreographer Richard Alston, who has been at the forefront of British dance for some 45 years, has brought some of the most innovative and acclaimed productions, packed with superbly skilled choreography, to the Norwich stage.
And this year the ever musical company returns for its 18th year with an all new programme of critically acclaimed works.
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'We were here for the first time in March 1999,' the company's executive director Isabel Tamen said – and it's a visit she remembers well, for she was a founding member of the company with internationally-renowned contemporary dance choreographer Richard Alston, and was the first to perform many of his most iconic pieces.
Richard, Isabel and the company return this weekend to unveil three new pieces to Norfolk audiences.
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Alston's An Italian in Madrid received its premiere at Sadler's Wells last March and Martin Lawrance's Tangent was first performed at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh in September, both to critical acclaim, while Chacony which is Alston's newest dance, will be having its UK premiere on the Norwich stage.
It is a programme that is again firmly rooted in music — something that has been the company's signature sibnce its formation.
Alston's An Italian in Madrid is inspired by the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, a baroque composer hugely influenced by Spanish guitar music, and explores this fusion of different cultures and styles. Alston has invited BBC Young Dancer grand finalist Vidya Patel to join the company for this exciting piece.
Tangent sees Martin Lawrance explore the vivid accents and attack of Tango as four couples, intertwined but shifting and subtly syncopating, glide through the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Tango master Piazzolla, played live by Jason Ridgway on piano.
Meanwhile Chacony is inspired by the Chaconne of Henry Purcell. Every bit as powerful but much more stringent is the Chacony from Britten's String Quartet No. 2, conceived as an overt tribute to Purcell. Alston juxtaposes these two pieces.
The programme Isabel danced in Norwich back in 1999 included Beyond Measure, a piece which she describes as 'one of my all-time favourite pieces by Richard – the music is by Bach and it was a beautiful duet he made for myself and another dancer. It's so very dear to me - probably one of the pieces I really, really loved dancing to when I was in the company.'
Often referred to as the 'founding father of British contemporary dance', perhaps more than any other choreographer Richard Alston is known for his instinctive musicality and for drawing inspiration for his work directly from music.
This deeply-felt association between the music and the dance is something that has seeped into every corner of the company and Isabel's passion is clear to see:
'Another wonderful Brahms piece was part of that 1999 programme,' she says. 'It's called Waltzes and Disorder – that's a beautiful piece. I hope Richard brings it back. He keeps on bringing back pieces that I have danced, like Brisk Singing. That was first done in 1997 and I was one of the founder dancers of that piece, so it was made on myself and Martin Lawrance [now an associate choreographer with the company], so we know it inside out. Whenever I am in the office and I hear the music playing, I know it.'
Portuguese-born Isabel trained as a dancer at the Gulbenkian Ballet School in Lisbon before moving to the London Contemporary Dance School. She was with Richard Alston Dance Company from its formation in 1994 until hanging up her dancing shoes in 1999 to pursue a new career behind the scenes. She returned to the company as its executive director in 2009.
'I was pregnant and had already done the big career. So I was ready to approach a second career and also age-wise the clock was ticking. I was 36-years-old when I left, so you have to think of other things you want in life.'
Her close association through the years with Richard and her understanding of how he works, plus being a former dancer, gives her an insight and ability to relate to the young dancers coming into the company today.
'There's a mutual respect. I watch the dancers with real pleasure. I loved what I did for many years with a passion, but I love watching them just as much now. I love seeing them grow and seeing the progression. They know that I understand. I have seen the pieces. I know what they are about. I know what they should look like, but I don't think it can only be done how I did it. They make it their own and I think that is wonderful.'
Her passion for dance has not dimmed: 'You never forget the music and, interestingly enough, you may forget some of the steps but it is such a visceral type memory, you tend to remember the basics of it, so when I see the pieces now I can completely recognise all my parts. I haven't forgotten. You just store it away and it is in the muscle memory.
'It becomes part of you, so you don't necessarily have to think about it and by the time you hit the stage it is about the performance. You should know the steps by then, and then it becomes about the performance and being aware of yourself and of the group.'
Isabel says the company has changed since the early days but one thing remains the same and that is the drive to nurture the young dancers and help them grow – and there has engendered a strong family feeling of 'family' within the company.
'If Richard is the father, then maybe I am the mother,' she laughs.
The company has eight dancers and it takes on two apprentices each year, chosen from an audition process with the dance schools. There is also strong demand from experienced dancers wanting to join the company on the rare occasion a senior position becomes available, and auditions then can attract up to 400 applications. If none of the eight senior dancers move on at the end of their yearly-renewed contracts, then there is no room for the apprentices to move up and stay with the company.
'If it was for Richard to decide, he would probably keep them all forever and forever because what is fantastic about having the same dancers is you see them grow and see their progression from when they first start with the company, and that is rewarding,' Isabel said.
'When dancers do decide they want to leave, we have to let them go. It's like a bird flying – you have to open the cage door. But many of them end up regretting it because they realise they had it good and they miss it. They miss the fact that Richard nurtures them. He is almost like a father figure in that way. Not many choreographers are as nice as he is. It is a tough world. A lot of dancers do all those years of training and sweat and then are out of a job. It's not easy to be a freelance dancer.'
Richard Alston Dance Company is based at The Place near King's Cross in London, established in 1969 as the focal point of contemporary dance creativity in Britain and also the home of the London Contemporary Dance School which attracts students and teachers from all over the world.
When Isabel joined the school herself as a young classical dance student from Portugal on a three-month trial, it changed her life and she made the UK her home. After dancing her way around the world with a company called Images, she joined the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, which was the resident company at The Place, and when that closed due to funding problems, she was chosen as one of nine dancers from the theatre to join Richard's newly-formed company.
He had previously been artistic director of Ballet Rambert, the rival to the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and had been asked to look after the theatre's very last tour. As part of that tour, he was asked to choreograph a season for Aldeburgh. 'It was very exciting,' Isabel remembers. 'He choreographed these pieces on us for Aldeburgh and it was my very first experience of working with Richard directly, and he was such a lovely man. It was definitely a special season.'
Her long artistic and business relationship with Richard is still based on a mutual love of music and a joy of dancing. 'Richard has such a varied palette. He loves different genres and has that deep, deep knowledge of music; he has not stuck with just classical music. He has made about 150 pieces, which is a lot of work, and if you just pick up all the different music for each single piece, it is unbelievable. It is really varied.'
She cites his recent works which have been influenced by hip-hop and also classical Indian dance which demonstrate how he is still learning himself.
'He listens and listens to the music until it is literally in his bloodstream, but then when he comes to the studio it just pours out of him because he has the confidence that age and experience brings. He can really still feel the passion and that's amazing.'
As the company's executive director, Isabel is keenly aware of the need to become more diverse, to be more entrepreneurial and find other ways of making money to enable the company to keep moving forward.
Touring is an expensive undertaking: 'But I think it is also one of the most rewarding things for a dancer and a choreographer,' she says. 'Richard enjoys the chance to see his work performed in different theatres and in front of different audiences. He learns from that. And a dancer in the same way learns from that experience too. If you take away the touring and you just performed in your own theatre, you wouldn't have all the expenses of travelling, but I think you would also miss out on a big deal – so I do hope that may long continue.'
• Richard Alston Dance, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 10-11, 7.30pm, £21.50-£7, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk