Derngate, Northampton, UK; October 8, 2013

David Mead

Richard Alston Dance Company in 'The Devil in the Detail'. Photo by © Tony Nandi

Richard Alston Dance Company in ‘The Devil in the Detail’.
Photo by © Tony Nandi

In a pre-performance talk, Richard Alston explained that his initial inspiration is always the music. It shows. That doesn’t mean he is a slave to it, but rather a master of capturing the mood and feeling inherent in it in his choreography.

“The Devil in the Detail” is a classic example. Set to seven Scott Joplin rags played nicely up tempo, Alston’s choreography is infectiously joyous and light. The ten dancers, dressed in summery, almost preppy chinos and dresses almost make you want to get up and join in. They make the dance look easy, but the devil really is in the detail. The steps are sometimes fast and intricate as Alston plays with the rhythms in the music. There is great attention to detail, with every movement crystal clear. Every section has delights. Nancy Nerantzi was beautifully light and expressive, and Liam Riddick full of zest in the opening “Maple Leaf Rag”. Riddick was again to the fore in an expressive solo that opens “Cascades”. Best of all though is the “The Ragtime Dance”, a whole-ensemble section in which the men and women often seem to be flirting gently with each other. The whole piece brings a smile to the face.

Set to what is sometimes described as ‘Eurasian tango’ by Japanese-American composer Ayuo Takahashi (more commonly simply called Ayuo), Martin Lawrance’s “Brink” features three duets between couples on the edge, although only two were danced here. Both dances suggested a story somewhere in the background, although quite what is left for the audience to decide. Elly Braund and Nathan Goodman were as feisty and forceful as the music. Their dance was full of the closeness and near-erotic suggestion of classic tango as their bodies enveloped each other in sometimes unusual ways. Unlike in traditional male led tango, however, here the power is equally divided. Oihana Vesga Bujan and Liam Riddick’s dance was somewhat softer; still intimate but with rather less close contact.

In celebration of this year’s centenary of composer Benjamin Britten, Alston has revived “Lachrymae”. His three duets, each a take on Britten’s variations on a gentle song by John Dowland are deeply moving.

Alston once said, “I will not waste good music on telling stories.” It’s no surprise, therefore, that “Illuminations”, while based on the turbulent life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, eschews straight storytelling. Instead, and although it contains hints of narrative of the entwined lives of Rimbaud and Verlaine, in this reworking of his 1994 piece, “Rumours, Visions”, Alston favours a concern with evoking moods and emotions.

Liam Riddick (Rimbaud) and Nathan Goodman (Verlaine, kneeling) in 'Illuminations'. Photo © Tony Nandi

Liam Riddick (Rimbaud) and Nathan Goodman (Verlaine, kneeling) in ‘Illuminations’.
Photo © Tony Nandi

In total contrast to “Devil”, in “Illuminations” Alston puts the dark side of humanity on show. It’s divided into short movements that are faithful to the text and imagery therein. Right from his brash, almost impatient opening solo, Liam Riddick as Rimbaud was outstanding. He is always central to the action, yet also essentially apart. The one exception comes in an expressive, tender duet with Nathan Goodman, who dances his fellow enfant terrible of French 19th century poetry, Paul Verlaine. It’s packed with the kind of love-ridden choreography that is usually reserved for dancers of different sexes. Riddick’s final solo, a depiction of Rimbaud’s later descent into madness is both dramatic and moving.

Many will find “Illuminations” surprisingly temperate, especially given Rimbaud was so tormented; his life so turbulent; and that he was frequently drugged, drunk and violent. That’s partly down to the music. As ever the piece is incredibly musical. But it’s not difficult to imagine it being done in a very different way. That may well have something to do with the parallels with Britten’s own life. The work may overtly be about Rimbaud, but is it equally (or really) about Britten?