Nancy Nerantzi (here wearing black) and Liam Riddick in 'Burning'.  Photo © Chris Nash

Nancy Nerantzi (here wearing black) and Liam Riddick in ‘Burning’.
Photo © Chris Nash

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; January 26, 2015

David Mead

It was a cracking evening. Then, you wouldn’t really expect anything else from Richard Alston, a founding father of British contemporary dance, and certainly one of the most musical choreographers around, in any style of dance; if not the most musical.

Alston’s company is this year celebrating its 20th anniversary, but that’s no time to stand still or simply look back. This Sadler’s Wells evening contained one world premiere and two London premieres. And, if anything, his ensemble looks better than ever.

The most interesting work was “Nomadic” in which Alston breaks new ground by collaborating with young hip-hop dancer and choreographer Ajani Johnson-Goffe. The blend of their different styles and Shukar Collective’s fusion of Romany and electronic music (from their 2005 Ursari Gypsy album) comes together much better than one might expect.

Initially, the movement is the familiar Alston vocabulary, but watch carefully and you can see the occasional hip-hop moment, albeit slowed down and smoothed out. The piece is generally at its best when there are less on stage, the highlight being an intricate and intimate conversation of a duet between Ihsaan de Banya and Nancy Nerantzi. Most of the ensemble sections look like they need bedding in a little more. At present, they lack the cleanliness usually associated with Alston, and come to that of most hip-hop crews. The exception is the closing section, which seems to be largely Johnson-Goffe’s, when the hip-hop comes more to the fore and the piece gets a real dose of energy.

I suspect “Nomadic” could become a real winner in time.

The programme opened with the London premiere of Alston’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”, danced to Benjamin Britten’s superb setting of the eccentric Christopher Smart’s fervent poetry. Having Montclair State University’s Vocal Accord choir on stage as a backdrop to the dance emphasised the connection between the music, words and music. Those words are full of wild and witty detail, reflected in Alston’s choreography. His dance reflects the poet’s mood swings (he was locked away in an asylum over what was seen as his religious mania) as ebbs and flows with the music, at times vibrant and colourful, at others contained, introspective and full of yearning.

Nicholas Bodych and Richard Alston Dance Company in 'Rejoice in the Lamb'.  Photo © Chris Nash

Nicholas Bodych and Richard Alston Dance Company in ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’.
Photo © Chris Nash

Associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s latest work, “Burning” is surely his best yet. When it premiered in Edinburgh in autumn 2014 it got a standing ovation. It’s easy to see why. Set to Lizst’s “Dante Sonata”, played live, “Burning” explores ‘Lisztomania’ and the composer’s long-term affair with the young, married Countess, Marie d’Agoult. Lawrence and the dancers tap right in to the personalities, emotions and passions of the couple.

Liam Riddick is perfect as the composer. His opening solo is expansive and expressive. He fills the stage while still revealing the conflicts going on inside. He never overtly encourages his female admirers’ infatuation with him, but either does he push the women away, their dance echoing how they used to fight to get a small memento such as a handkerchief or glove.

Nancy Nerantzi, in a red dress that distinguishes her from the other admirers, bubbles over with passion. The highlight comes in a long and sometimes frenetic pas de deux that’s full of lifts and embraces, and that climaxes in the couple sweeping across the floor in a tidal wave of emotion.

Great stuff, indeed.

Rounding things off was the Sadler’s Wells premiere of Lawrance’s 2013 piece, “Madcap”, with Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe’s score played live by Icebreaker. It begins with what looks like an otherworldly insect, a strange spider maybe, but although it occasionally hints at exploding, it never truly lives up to its title, and fails to ignite.