It’s not every day that a superstar in the international world of contemporary dance visits a college campus to help rehearse students in one of his own choreographies. So forgive Department of Dance students if they are a little starstruck in January, when Richard Alston, founder and artistic director of the Richard Alston Dance Company (RADC), will arrive from England to provide final preparations for the performance of his work Brisk Singing.
Part of the Currents and Crossings dance concerts at the Power Center for the Performing Arts (February 5-8), Brisk Singing features intricate choreography and joyful music from the opera Les Boréades, by French Baroque composer Jean-Phillipe Rameau. It is a quintessential work by Alston, who is known for his instinctive musicality, taking inspiration directly from the music he uses as a point of departure for his choreography.
“Brisk Singing epitomizes Alston style,” said Angela Kane, chair of the Department of Dance, who wrote her dissertation on Alston and has known him for 30 years. “It’s Richard at his most musical and refined: liberal expression of movement and demeanor; fast, fleet footwork; sweeping ensemble sections contrasted with close partnering in duets and trios; and a central male-female duet that is stunning and lusciously sensual.”
SMTD dance students have regularly enjoyed the unique opportunity and distinct honor of having works set on them by renowned Fdance companies. In recent years, the roster has included the American companies of Paul Taylor, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, and Lucinda Childs. But the RADC residency marks the first time an overseas dance company has provided this exceptional experience, and the first time a company leader has worked with the students.
Alston-who is also artistic director of The Place, London’s legendary center for the study and performance of contemporary dance-is a seminal figure in the development of dance in Great Britain in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He has created works for Ballet Rambert, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Royal Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet. With recent commissions for the U.K.’s Barbican Theatre, Scottish Ballet, and Ballet Black, as well as Ballet Theatre Munich, the Holland Dance Festival, and New York Theatre Ballet, Alston continues to reign as one of Britain’s most celebrated choreographers.
The RADC, which Alston founded in 1994, is firmly established as one of the most popular dance troupes in the U.K., where it tours annually; the company also makes frequent visits to the United States, including sold-out performances at the Joyce Theater in New York. When RADC made its NYC debut in 2004, Christopher Reardon of The New York Times described Alston as “a modernist whose fast, plotless dances evoke the gentle lyricism of Frederick Ashton, the rhythmic intensity of Merce Cunningham, and the keen musicality of Mark Morris.”
Rehearsals for the student performance of Brisk Singing began over a two-week period in November, with RADC rehearsal director and former company member Martin Lawrance. He flew to Ann Arbor for a week-long residency, offering daily workshops to begin the process of re-staging the work. The following week brought the arrival of Francesa Romo from New York, a former RADC member and co-founder of Brooklyn’s Gallim Dance, who helped cast Brisk Singing and continued rehearsing the dancers.
“The two-week residency introduced our students to the very best of British contemporary choreography,” said Kane. “It was a wonderful opportunity for them to work with two former Alston dancers, who performed together in Brisk Singing’s central duet. Having both male and female dancer perspectives was a rare opportunity during such a concentrated re-staging period.”
The students agreed. “Learning Brisk Singing from Martin and Fran was a compact but constantly educational and joyful experience,” said Meri Bobber, a junior dance major. “The opportunity to absorb such demanding, advanced choreography from professionals was a valuable experience that will continue to teach me what it means to rehearse-and eventually perform-like a professional dancer.”
“I loved being in the residency,” said freshman Michael Erickson. “Alston’s movement manages to be both athletic and elegant, which makes it really thrilling to watch.”
Catherine (CJ) Burroughs, a senior, summed up the overall experience: “They gave me the opportunity to improve my technique, embody virtuosity, and find new imagery.”
Both Lawrance and Romo also taught technique by another hero of modern dance, Merce Cunningham, whose movement had a large influence on Alston’s choreography after Alston studied with him in the 1970s. Earlier in the semester, Cunningham technique was also explored through a master class led by renowned dance educator and SMTD alumna Carol Teitelbaum, a former Merce Cunningham dancer and faculty chair of the Merce Cunningham School from 1998 until it closed in 2012.
Kane, who is enjoying her eighth and final year as chair of the Department of Dance, wrote extensively about Alston in the 1980s and was the key to bringing him to Michigan to provide students the opportunity to perform his work and to be personally rehearsed by him.
“Having Richard with us at U-M will be extremely moving for me personally-almost 30 years since his work with Ballet Rambert-and highly motivating for our students as we transfer Brisk Singing from the Dance Building to the Power Center stage. We’re all extremely excited that Richard is our guest artist for Currents and Crossings!”
The Alston performance and the residencies associated with it were the result of an “Internationalizing the Curriculum” grant from CRLT (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching), which also supports a new course that is closely connected to the residencies. Titled “Dancing Cities: Cultural Capitals,” the course was created by and is taught by Kane.
“Dancing Cities,” first offered in 2013, introduces students to the idea of “fields of production”: how both local conditions and international trends are at play in the creation of choreography and dance companies; how dance works are received in particular contexts; and how the arts are supported (or not) at regional and national levels by complex combinations of economic, cultural, and symbolic systems of power.
The 2014 course explored several international influences on Alston’s choreography, including Cunningham and the British choreographer Frederick Ashton. The historical context provided by the academic studies combined powerfully with the residencies to create an immersive experience for the students.
“Being a part of the re-staging of Brisk Singing was an incredible experience,” said Maggie O’Connor. “From the very first audition to finishing the re-staging, the experience was extremely rewarding. It was amazing to see how much we all grew as dancers in just two short weeks. I am so grateful to have been a part of this work, and look forward to continuing to rehearse and eventually perform it.”
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.