Richard Alston celebrates 40 years in dance



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As Richard Alston celebrates his fortieth anniversary as a choreographer (and Dance Umbrella reaches its thirtieth), Time Out asks him about his landmark London dance moments of the past four decades

  • Richard Alston celebrates 40 years in dance

    Let's do the time warp: Richard Alston © Ida Zenn

  • Forty years ago, London’s contemporary dance scene was in its infancy. Ballet Rambert had cast off its pointe shoes in a move towards modern dance, Robin Howard had just founded the London School of Contemporary Dance, and in 1968 a young choreographer presented his first work, a quartet called ‘Transit’.

    ‘It was only four minutes long and took me three months to make. I didn’t know what I was doing,’ remembers Richard Alston. But he knew well enough to keep making work, and he’s now celebrating his fortieth year as a choreographer with a show at the 2008 Dance Umbrella festival.

    London was a very different city in those early days. ‘It was just at the beginning of the dance and alternative theatre boom, and squatting was like a national pastime,’ says Alston. ‘In those days there was so much fringe activity.’ And young dancers had a passionate supporter in Time Out’s dance editor, Jan Murray. ‘She was forging the way,’ he says. ‘My memory of the magazine then is that it was very energetic, quite kooky, and really told you the exciting things. It was the equivalent, years later, of when young people found out where a rave was happening through some secret message.’

    But Murray’s enthusiasm wasn’t enough to sustain that first flush of fringe activity. ‘At that time it was “anything goes”, which was very exciting, but it burnt out. The audience got contemporary dance fatigue because they went to so many things that were half-baked.’ Of those very early British contemporary choreographers, Alston is really the only one still active. ‘Anyone who is working [in dance] is something of a survivor. You have to have a real appetite and energy and a burning need to do it, because it’s not an easy field.’

    Richard Alston interviewed in Time Out in 1973

    Although times were often lean, certain champions kept British dance buoyant, not least Val Bourne, who founded the Dance Umbrella festival in 1978. ‘Dance Umbrella was a real landmark because it began, very methodically and passionately, to develop an audience for contemporary dance,’ says Alston. ‘Val brought dance to London that had never been thought of here.’ John Ashford, Time Out’s first theatre editor, also had a huge influence, taking charge at The Place in 1987. ‘Over the years all sorts of artists have found their way through The Place. Wayne McGregor was resident choreographer and now he’s at the Opera House.’

    There are two stand-out performances that stick in Alston’s mind. ‘John Cage’s "Roaratorio" in the Proms in 1987 at the Albert Hall, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company danced in that central circle. That was fantastic, that was really wonderful,’ he says. ‘And the other one was when Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker appeared at the Festival Hall in 1996. All sorts of technical things went wrong and we had to wait 45 minutes, but the entire British dance community was there, because there hadn’t been contemporary dance in the Festival Hall before. It was a very tricky night but it was a triumph.’

    These days, bar the ongoing funding worries, British dance is in rude health, and the cross-fertilisation between ballet and contemporary dance is something Alston sees as important progress. But while looking to the future, Alston is marking his anniversary by revisiting his past in ‘The Men In My Life’, a collage of pieces made for male dancers over the years, including the solo ‘Dutiful Ducks’, originally created for Michael Clark. ‘It’s great to see it,’ says Alston. ‘I still believe in the movement. I still believe in what I was trying to do. I’m quite impressed by how fierce I was.’

    Alston may have mellowed since his debut, but his survival instinct is definitely still intact.

    Richard Alston Dance Company is at Sadler’s Wells, October 2 & 3. All Dance Umbrella bookings: 0844 412 4312/

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