Barbican Theatre, London, UK; November 6, 2013     

David Mead     

Ihsaan de Banya as Hippolutus in Richard Alston's 'Phaedra'. Photo © Tony Nandi

Ihsaan de Banya as Hippolytus.
in Richard Alston’s ‘Phaedra’.
Photo © Tony Nandi


After the Barbican decided they wanted a choreographer to create work and to open their Barbican Britten season, a two-week celebration of the composer’s birth, there was only ever one person to turn to. Richard Alston is not only an intensely musical choreographer, but also a lifelong fan of Britten. Typically, both the new, existing and reworked pieces on the programme brought together dance and music in the strongest possible way.

Centrepiece of the programme is “Phaedra”, which tells of the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë (wife of Theseus) who, having falsely accused her stepson Hippolytus of rape, an action that led to his death, then killed herself. It’s a story with many potent elements, and could easily make a strong dance drama. But this is Alston, who once said famously that he would “not waste good music on telling stories.”

He doesn’t really do that here, preferring instead to illustrate the nine tableaux in the music, each a stage in Phaedra’s fateful journey. The emotions therein are not displayed in all their rawness, but in his typically refined, good-mannered way. Yet, far from diminishing them, and in a way that may perhaps surprise, that emphasises their force and that of the music.

Like the music, Alston’s choreography features recurring patterns and mirror images. Particularly impressive is his use of the remaining dancers as a chorus. Dressed in eye-catching scarlet and deep maroon dresses by Fotini Dimou, they silently but most effectively magnified Phaedra’s ever increasing torment.

It’s not that unusual to see a singer live on stage with dancers, but what is unusual is to them play a specific character and to interact with them strongly. With the Britten Sinfonia as a backdrop, mezzo soprano Allison Cook as Phaedra was always part of the action. She was very convincing, which is not as easy as it sounds. Singing and moving with dancers is an art very different to just singing. The newest recruit to Alston’s ensemble, Ihsaan de Banya was magnificently lithe, displaying plenty of raw power and no little elegance as Hippolytus. He looks to be one to watch. Roles are also given to Theseus (James Muller) and Oenone (Nancy Nerantzi), as a sort of counterbalancing couple to Phaedra and Hippolytus.

James Pett and Oihana Vesga Bujan in 'Lachrymae'. Photo © Tony Nandi

James Pett and Oihana Vesga Bujan in ‘Lachrymae’.
Photo © Tony Nandi

Set to Britten’s “Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente”, one of his lesser known song cycles, another new work, “Hölderlin Fragments” is, if anything, even more beautiful. The six dances are intimate miniatures; dance on a chamber scale. Alston takes images from the poetry, rather than attempting to follow them in detail. The highlight was “Youth”, a solo in which Nathan Goodman was sharp and nimble as he playfully captured the freedom of being young. I also found myself spellbound by “Socrates and Alcibiades” (James Muller and Liam Riddick), in which one dances most classically as the other works round him, gently touching him from time to time, much as one would an object that one cannot quite believe is so real or so beautiful.

The other works looked as good as when seen earlier in the season. “Lachrymae”, three duets, each a take on Britten’s variations on a gentle song by John Dowland are deeply touching.

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

While “Illuminations” looked as good as previously, with Riddick again outstanding as the confident and later wild and broken Arthur Rimbaud, it didn’t sound as good. Tenor Robin Tritschler lacked nuance and struggled to bring out much of the madness of the French poet or his world, although he wasn’t helped by being over-miked. Alston presents Rimbaud as a man central to the action, yet at the same time someone essentially apart, which is exactly how society saw and treated him. Nathan Goodman was once more strong as Paul Verlaine, whose torrid affair with Rimbaud shook their conservative provincial world.

Richard Alston Dance Company continues on tour to Glasgow and Guildford, with other dates to follow. See for details.