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Richard Alston’s Smash Joyce Debut

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Britain’s foremost choreographer incorporates abstractionist forms into his repertoire

By GUS SOLOMONS, JR.

As Jason Ridgway delicately fingers the chromatic melodies of Ravel’s “Sonatine & Miroirs” on the grand piano upstage, Ino Riga nestles her lithe, lanky body into long, lean Jonathan Goddard’s strong arms in the first of three lushly lyrical duets that begin Richard Alston’s “Shimmer.”

Charles Balfour bathes the stage in dark, lustrous evening light. The dancers wear fabulous, jewel-encrusted cobwebs, designed by noted British couturier Julien MacDonald, director of the glamorous Givenchy of Paris.

In subsequent duets, “Shimmer” continues spilling out luscious, stretchy extensions, twining limbs, and startling lifts for Francesca Romo, with Luke Baio in white, and Sonja Peedo, with Martin Lawrence in blue. Maria Nikoloulea, also in black, joins the other six in the group passage that separates the duets from solos of spectacular virtuosity by Peedo and Lawrence.

The quick direction changes and long, lunging arabesques of their dazzling phrases epitomize the sensitive maturity of Alston’s choreographic invention and his meticulous attention to kinetic details. It’s no accident that Lawrence—a remarkable dancer—wears what looks like a dress; his powerful leaps and open-hipped extensions make his dancing seductively androgynous.

While studying in New York in the late 1960s, Alston absorbed Merce Cunningham’s abstractionist approach to movement. Later, in his native England, he became director of The Place, London’s premier modern dance center and in 1994 founded his own Richard Alston Dance Company. The troupe made its American debut at the Joyce Theater, May 11 through 16 to a hearty welcome by a captivated audience.

The three dances on the program celebrate abstraction. Alston identifies the dancers by the colors of their costumes: no characters, no stories. But unlike Cunningham (whose dancers rarely hear their sound accompaniment until the moment of performance) for Alston the music is the sea on which the steps are set afloat, and his three choices here—Jean-Philippe Rameau, Maurice Ravel, and Terry Riley—inspire such different movement textures that each ballet makes a unique impression. The music determines whatever emotions we care to infer, as we watch.

In the opening, “Brisk Singing,” Alston’s fluid yet finely articulated movement surfs the buoyant rhythms and changing moods of selections from Rameau’s opera “Les Boreades.” Seven dancers—purple: Peedo, Nikoloulea, Goddard, and Omar Gordon; red: Romo and Baio; and gray: Margarita Zafrilla Olayo and Dam Huynh—breeze through space in spacious, swooping arcs or freeze momentarily to highlight a subtle toe tap or turn of the head.

Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” sends all 11 dancers bounding in “Overdrive,” the exhilarating finale, sporting Jeanne Spaziani’s combinations of red and gray outfits. Harriet Macauley completes the 11-member company. Alston deploys his dancers in space with enormous skill and variety—geometric groupings and asymmetrical placements constantly reshape the stage and redirect our focus. His musical sensitivity makes the relationship between music and movement seem inevitable.

Alston’s wonderful dancers move with the authority and grace of ballet but with contemporary sensibility in the fluency of their spines and breathy fullness of their phrasing and continuity. Let’s hope this terrific troupe blows its breath of fresh air over these shores again soon.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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