Virtuoso pianist Jason Ridgway provides the music for Richard Alston to dance to
- Credit: Archant
Match made in musical heaven for the choreographer at the cutting edge of modern dance and pianist who loves ballet music.
Growing up in a tiny Lancashire village, the chances for a young boy who loved classical and ballet music to pursue his passion at the highest level must have seemed like a dream that might remain just that.
But by sheer fluke Jason Ridgway was fortunate to have a couple of the UK's best piano teachers of the day on his doorstep – otherwise he may never have become the go-to pianist that contemporary ballet choreographer Richard Alston has relied on for the past 16 years to bring many of his memorable pieces to life on stage.
Jason is a former piano finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the year and has performed both as a concert pianist and with Richard Alston Dance throughout the UK and America, appearing at prestigious venues such as the Weill Recital Hall, Teatro Bellini and the Grossersaal Salzburg, as well as performing with leading orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, the Philharmonia at St. John's Smith Square and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
This week, Jason, who has visited Norwich many times with the Richard Alston Dance Company, is back to play live on stage as the programme of new works is unveiled to Theatre Royal audiences.
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Richard Alston's An Italian in Madrid received its premiere at Sadler's Wells on March 19 earlier this year, while Martin Lawrance's Tangent was first performed at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh on September 23 - both to critical acclaim. And Chacony is Alston's newest dance and the full 24-minute piece will have its UK premiere at Norwich Theatre Royal.
Jason grew up in surroundings very similar to rural Norfolk in the tiny village of Arkholme on the Lancashire/Cumbrian border. 'But I was very fortunate that a famous piano teacher lived there – the late Pauline Hall. She wrote the Oxford University Press Piano Time books. I started playing piano when I was seven, which in many ways is quite late. But it was always the piano. I did learn the violin but then gave that up because the piano took precedence and became the main focus.'
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He attended the Cheethams School of Music in Manchester from age ten to 18 and studied under Heather Slade-Lipkin. 'It was a specialist music school so we had our curriculum split between music and academic studies. It was a very intense musical programme. We had three hours of practice timetabled into our routine every day and would invariably do more. It was very much like going to the Royal Ballet School.'
When he moved on to the Guildhall School of Music, he graduated with one of the highest honours in the history of the school and was awarded the Piano Prize. He also won the Julius Isserlis Scholarship presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society which enabled him to go to the Mozarteum in Salzburg where he stayed with the notable German academic teacher of classical pianists Karl-Heinz Kämmerling.
Two years later, Jason returned to the UK to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he completed two years as an undergraduate and two years on the advanced solo studies under the tutelage of Peter Bithell, who in turn had studied under Italian pianist and teacher Guido Agosti. Jason has also studied with Hungarian classical pianist Valeria Szervansky.
'I was still at the Guildhall in my post-graduate years when I first met Richard,' Jason explained. 'I'd always had an interest in dance ever since I was a little boy. I had never studied it, but I remember I wanted to and my parents were quite adamant that I focus on one thing. Torvill and Dean were my first memory of something like that, but then when I was a student at the Guildhall and all the other students were going to concerts, I would go to the ballet. I would go to almost everything and would queue for cheap tickets to somewhere like the Royal Ballet, so I had a real passion and interest for dance even before I met Richard.'
The first choreographers Jason loved were George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton: 'You almost see visual music when you look at their work and at Richard's. My meeting with Richard was completely by chance in March 2000 – a pianist dropped out and I stood in. I had no idea how it was going to develop, but I have had a long association with him.'
Jason still remembers the very first piece of music he played for Richard: 'It was A Sudden Exit set to Brahms piano works 119 and 118, in Oxford in 2000, and it was a wonderful work. And then the next season he created a work called Strange Company set to Schumann.'
Unusually, Richard Alston places the piano on stage, with his dancers moving around it. Jason said: 'Richard likes to have the piano present as a dialogue between the instrumentalist and the dancers. Often you will see the musicians in the pit and then you get the aural aspect of the music, but you don't get quite the same feeling of almost like chamber music between the dancers and the musician. And it's very nice for the piano because it is a single instrument, so there is a rapport that can be traced between this big grand piano in the corner and the musician and the dancers. Richard is so incredible at visualizing the music and responding to it in a very natural way.'
'A piece starts with Richard choosing a piece of music because he has had an immediate response to it and he will find a recording he likes. He'll send me the recording for tempo and rubato, but it is impossible to imitate another pianist so it really is just a guideline. Then I will go into the studio sometimes often as late as a week before the premiere. Obviously there are going to be slightly different mannerisms and tempo and rubato that I do compared to the recording Richard has been using, but I think his dancers are so musical and his choreography is so musical that we find a common ground and find our feet very quickly. And then we have the first performance and we usually have something good – and that evolves and develops. Richard does give me little directions, but most of the time it is quite instinctive.'
Sometimes with technically difficult music, Jason can be so preoccupied with the virtuosity of the music that he finds it hard to look at the dancers, but he has certain queues in the music and the choreography to follow. 'People think I am assiduously watching and following every move, but it's more the mood. I'm breathing the music and they are breathing the dance and they meet somewhere. It is always a challenge because I feel responsible for them as well.'
He often feels the rush of air as the dancers move around – especially when they come close to the piano. 'Richard creates a kind of dialogue between this beast of an instrument and the dancers, so often there are moments when a dancer will approach the piano and immediately this tension is created.'
One of the delights of touring with Richard Alston Dance Company is that the very family-orientated company provides companionship on the road. 'Being a pianist can be quite a quite solitary existence. We practice alone, we travel alone if we are doing solo concerts. At best we might have another musician with us if we are doing a duo or trio concert, or a quartet, but most of the time we spend alone, so it is very nice with this company to have that rapport with the body of dancers but also go out with them after the show and not just back to your hotel room. I think Richard has a knack of surrounding himself with really nice people, so the dancers are absolutely lovely to work with.'
Jason has enjoyed many memorable moments over the 16 years while playing with the Richard Alston Dance Company and there are some pieces he is particularly fond of: 'I have always loved Shimmer set to pieces from Ravel. I love the music and it's a piece which suits my playing and I think Richard's work for that is absolutely gorgeous - the lighting, the costumes, the duets, it really is a stunning piece and it's been a back bone to the company because it has come back. We did it again very recently and it's had a presence through the 16 years.'
And he is excited by the new works created by the company, such as An Italian In Madrid, set to Scarletti 's sonatas. 'It looks very beautiful. Richard is always inspired, but at the moment I feel he has created something truly beautiful with this. It is baroque harpsichord music, extremely challenging technically, lots of repeated notes which on the harpsichord are so feather-light. It is quite challenging and tricky and is an incredibly virtuosic piece. The dancers have to be very nimble on their feet.'
'Richard fortunately chooses very challenging and very good music. He has never asked me to play something I haven't wanted to. He has exquisite musical taste so I always get to play great things. I am very happy I found a niche for myself in dance,' Jason said. 'Richard is the only dance company I play for. I would feel disloyal to play for another company.'
• Richard Alston Dance, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 10-11, 7.30pm, £21.50-£7, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk