by Martin French
Richard Alston is one of the UK's most enduring choreographers. With over 30 years in the business he must be doing something right! Surely? Article19 picks up the phone to find out more.
Article19: What was your motivation for creating your latest work “Shimmer”.
A really good friend of mine died last year. He was an art critic and he was the director of the Whitechapel gallery in to 60’s and he was a hugely influential and enthusiastic person who supported my work [and] he really put me in touch with lots and lots of people, his name was Brian Robertson. So I wanted to make a piece because he loved dance and he loved painting, the visual arts in particular.
He was also very keen on music and he was always goading me to go see things. He had a long illness and towards the end of his illness, when he was at home not in hospital, I noticed he was listening to a lot of Ravel, he always loved French music.
So that’s what made me think about that. I had, sort of, a teenage crush on Ravel when I left school [but] then I dismissed it as pretty and juvenile. So I decided for Brian’s sake I really must go back and have a good listen and I got completely hooked on these Ravel piano pieces.
So that’s the starting point for the show. Then through a mutual friend I met Julian McDonald, the fashion designer, and he was saying how much he wanted to design clothes for dance and it seemed to me that Ravel would be a really good vehicle for that. It some ways it’s quite stark, the music, but it’s not severe. So that’s why we began to talk and we came up with the image of the piece which [was] to call it “Shimmer” and we’re going to see where it goes from there.
Article19: you have been creating work for 30 years now how do you keep things fresh in a movement and phrasing sense?
I’ve never lost the sense that movement astonishes you by what it tells you. It appears from nowhere, you ask someone to do something and then you find out something about the way movement is put together, you find out something about the way the human body works. With this company in particular I’ve really emphasised the link between dance and music and so the whole area of time and phrasing can be so detailed.
I’m very much drawn to a very flowing kind of movement. So for me the struggle is to always try and keep it coherent; it sometimes disappears up its own detail. It [the movement] becomes so flowing and complicated spatially and then you have to find a way of making it coherent so it doesn’t just look like a load of wafting.
So there are things that keep me absolutely on the ball. I find it still a huge challenge and when people ask me why I still do it I say; because I love it. I still love being in the studio. Last night, at the end of the day, I was working on some more solo material for Shimmer and, it’s childish really, [but] I still love it! [laughs]
Article19: How do you stop yourself from repeating yourself, such as going back to something from the 80’s?
I don’t think back that far.[laughs] But I think it’s what you do with movement and how you re-interpret, how you re-develop it and so-on. I’m comfortable now with the fact that that I have a movement language, just as Matisse has blue cut-out shapes, Henry Moore Puts holes in sculptures, there’s a certain kind of folding and unfolding flowing language which is true to my spirit and that’s my sphere.
Article19: How has your approach to choreography changed since the 70’s and Strider?
Well I hope it’s a bit more complicated [laughs] I think when I started Strider I really was just finding out; it was a real suck it and see technique [back] then. I was just finding out how it felt. Before I went to America I think a lot of the stuff I was doing here was trying to find out how to express in movement ideas that [excited me]. [Ideas from] people like Merce Cunningham and the Judson Church Movement and so-on. There was a whole development of dance in America which didn’t exist here at all.
So I read about it avidly and then I was kind of trying it out to see how it felt. Then when I went to America, for two years I was in New York, I saw so much dance. The paradoxical thing is that whilst I was there I realised that there was work in England that I could really benefit from, that I would love to study and that was actually Ashton [Frederick Ashton].
So going to America made me realise how much I loved Ashton because I’d seen Ashton when I had started dance. I used to go in the evening to the Royal Ballet School and Royal Ballet Performances. There was lot’s of Ashton in the mid 60’s.
When I was at Rambert I got to know him which was great. He’s a choreographer whom I’ve still got huge affection for. I didn’t bother to hide how much of a fan I was so as a result he was extremely affectionate and very helpful.
Article19: In a recent Interview with Darshan Bhuller of Phoenix he said he would like to revive some of the works by Robert Cohan from the London Contemporary Dance Theatre Days, what are your feelings on that?
Well I was involved at the beginning of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, I was never in the company.
I don’t think work should disappear and it irritates me a bit that there’s a recognised machinery for bringing back early pieces of Ashton or for doing memorial programs for Kenneth McMillan so in the world of Ballet they do it. But the hunger in contemporary work is always for the latest creation.
I look back at my work and I revive things. One of my closest friend is Sue Davies [Siobhan Davies] and almost any time she has revived something it’s because I’ve given her a nudge and a dig and said “go on!” When I was at Rambert we revived things of hers then.
I think not only should work stand up 20 years later, if it’s good work, it’s also a fantastic chance for people to see it who weren’t around twenty years before. I also think artists learn a lot from what they did before and what they believe in still and what they don’t believe in. Any other art form you can do that; you can read an early novel and go “ouch”. You can go look at an early painting and see where what you’re doing now comes from.
Dance can, very easily, just disappear.
For me what Bob [Cohan] was, was an absolutely fantastic teacher and his teaching at the moment is not very widespread. Darshan is one of the few people who teaches his work. So Darshan is someone who could revive his work [because] he knows how to teach people to do it.
Article19: How can contemporary dance compete for the attention of young people with strong competition from cinema, television, DVD’s and computer games.
By being different from what’s on video and television. In certain ways I think some live performance has become very extreme, sometimes [using] a violent sort of energy. Sometimes the notion of performing as risk taking or performing as exposing oneself in every sense is pushing to emphasise what’s live as opposed to what you can put on video or film.
The audience that comes to see my work is a very interesting mix. It’s quite a few older people who are straight forward about what they want and who find my work straight forward. And then there’s a whole element of young people, [because] like it or not I am now considered a part of history, so they all have to study me. So they all come along and I hope they find the live work and the recent work [more engaging] than what they have to look at on a video all the time.
I’m hoping that they have a good enough time and are engaged and some of those young people will stay with us and become the next audience.
Article19: Who do you see as continuing the development of contemporary dance over the next 10 years?
The simple answer is someone who has the tenacity to keep going and you can’t tell who that will be. I think Henri Oguike is pushing away there which is great and that makes me very proud because he was in my company and then left to start his own work. Akram [Khan] has got such an unusual cultural starting point that in a way he’s been given a kick start so it will be interesting to see how that develops because there’s no question he is very gifted.
I think Fin Walker is just working away really hard and her work is developing fast, I think that’s really interesting.
Article19: What particular problems do you think they will face that choreographers and dancers of your generation did not face?
For me the kind of dance that I make and the kind of dance that I still remain absolutely in love with is about continuity of work. Nowadays, generally, for continuity of work there is not continuity of funding. It’s as crude as that!
Everyone has work in a situation where they can’t work continually and dancers have to somehow keep themselves in shape. In that sense I think that’s a huge struggle. All three of those choreographers [mentioned above] are dealing with movement language, there dealing with something very specific and I think the struggle is to try and find some kind of ongoing basis so they can continue working rather than doing a project here and a project there.
Article19: Do you plan to keep working in this business for as long as Merce Cunningham?
I’m happy to admit that I am no where near as obsessive as Merce. I don’t have an entire Zen Buddhist approach to sustain me on that sort of level.
I think I shall try and keep doing this as long as I love it. At the moment the body hurts quite a bit, but you know when it hurts it something you really want to do. Eventually I will just go and sit in a wheelchair and stop I suppose.
Secretly I’ve always really loved words too [so] I think when it hurts too much to move I’m just going to sit down and write.