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Later this month sees the start of the Richard Alston Dance Company’s 20th anniversary celebrations. We went behind the scenes to ask Richard about how he creates new work, and about supporting the next generation of dancers and choreographers. 

How did this project come about?

It came about originally through talking with Eddie Nixon, Director of Theatre and Artist Development at The Place, about what we might do in the theatre to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Eddie suggested we celebrate what is happening now, the influence of the Company and the work I’ve done with young people, rather than just being nostalgic. I thought that was a really good idea.

That’s when I started thinking about how to involve choreographers who are working now, and came up with the idea of working with Ajani Johnson-Goffe. Since some choreographers go to Sadler’s Wells and make links with starry ballet dancers, I thought I’d rather make a link with something else that happens at Sadler’s Wells, namely Breakin’ Convention.

So that’s what we are doing right now and it’s very difficult but I’m learning an amazing amount very quickly, about what I’d describe as the rigours of hip hop. It’s a very exact language and it’s very demanding.

What drew you to working with London Contemporary Dance School graduate Ajani on Nomadic?

I saw Ajani’s choreography two years ago in Refresh, when he first came to the school and he made a wonderful piece. Then this summer when he was graduating, I chose him to be in my project with the graduating students and I really enjoyed working with him as dancer; he is absolutely, instinctively musical and that is a great bond between us despite our very different ages and very different backgrounds. He makes exact material and he moves with tremendous rhythmic clarity, so I’ve asked him to dance in the new piece.

Listening to an excerpt of the music you’ve chosen, which is by urban Gypsy band Shukar Collective, it’s very energetic, merging Gypsy sounds with contemporary hip hop and dance beats. Several of your more recent pieces to Britten have had a narrative to them, how different is it working with this choice of music?

It’s my usual habit to leap from one kind of music to something very different, so the little extended Britten period was unusual for me. I was very happy to do it as I love his work, but I think it’s very liberating to suddenly be working with something completely different.

How did you choose the title ‘Nomadic’?

The imagery behind the music and the imagery behind the title Nomadic is not narrative but it is definitely not abstract, it’s about a notion of travel. The music reflects people who travel, from one culture to another. The Roma culture in Romania is one that has many influences in it and you can hear that in the voices. The music is by the Romanian Ursari Gypsy band Shukar Collective it’s much darker music than I used in my earlier piece Gypsy Mixture (2004). Gypsy Mixture was quite optimistic, a lot of it is very cheerful, and the extra beats were added by DJs all over the world. Romania has been through some very dark times and the Gypsies were right in the middle of that and not exactly well treated. There’s something extraordinarily tough about the music and something mournful, very beautiful, very Asian-influenced and very sad.

What does a typical day for you involve when you are making a new work with the company?

I often stay at home in the morning and listen to music, or gather my energy just by being quiet. Now I‘m in the middle of making the piece it’s quite easy for me to come in and talk to you, but in the first days of rehearsal I would probably only come in just few minutes before the rehearsal, then go into the studio – ba-boom – something happens. I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t work long hours, I make movement very fast. I throw it at the dancers and see how they do it and then take off from what they do. Sometimes I give myself an hour or hour and a half and start working on different little sections. I don’t work from beginning to end. I find a point where I think I might know what I want to do but I’m not quite sure, and think to myself “let’s see what happens”. This time I’m working very fast because Ajani works slowly. I’m trying to look after everyone in the process.

Supporting young dancers and choreographers is something that you’ve been involved with throughout your career, and in last 20 years in particular, working with students at London Contemporary Dance School and through your work as Chair of Youth Dance England. What do you enjoy most about this aspect?

With Youth Dance England I really love seeing very young choreographers and being absolutely gob-smacked by their courage. Maybe they are too young to have learnt to worry, I don’t know what it is, but they tackle very dark subjects and tackle them with great maturity and that’s what I find extraordinary. Youth Dance England’s Young Creatives Platform mentors young choreographers brilliantly.

I guess the longest term mentoring I’ve done is with Martin Lawrance (choreographer and Richard Alston Dance Company Rehearsal Director), and that to me is hugely exciting because I’ve been there to support him and encourage him, and take him quietly through the inevitable period when everyone said he was just copying me. But they don’t say that now, and needn’t have said that ever actually, and I’m thrilled that he is recognised as having his own voice. These two pieces that we’re doing at Sadler’s Wells are real proof of that.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a young person who’s considering pursuing dance as a career?

Be prepared for an uphill battle, it’s very tough for young people starting now. The kind of opportunities that The Place offers are amazing but there are not that many opportunities and it’s very hard for a young choreographer to get going these days. So you really have to believe in what you are doing. I think for me, the danger is that people feel like they have to grab whatever they are offered and grasp at success. Actually, when you are a young artist success shouldn’t be what you are thinking about. That’s very easy for me to say, because when I started in the 1960s it was a very, very different sort of world but I absolutely understand what happens now. I feel that young choreographers get pigeonholed and trapped, because the world wants choreographers and the world is used to having things very quickly now. But I think artists sometimes take ages to grow, and I think I was a very slow developer and was very lucky to have so many opportunities. I wonder where I’d be if I was 20 something now. I wonder how I’d get on, whether I’d survive. It’s very, difficult, very tough.

Looking ahead to the summer, you’ll be continuing the celebrations with a four night run at The Place, called ‘Alston At Home’. For this programme you’ll be playing more of a curator role than usual, selecting young choreographers to present their work alongside your own choreography for the company. Can you tell me a bit about who you’ve chosen to work with and why?

We try to make a programme for The Place that is unique to the theatre and not just put on one of our regular touring programmes. Ihsaan de Banya, who is in the company, will make a new piece after his success with Casting Shadows last year for Resolution!, Jonathan Goddard is coming back to work with me, we’ve wanted to work together ever since he left the company, so this is a really good opportunity to do that.

Joseph Toonga used to invite me to watch him when he was at London Contemporary Dance School, and I really loved what I saw him do in the workshop programmes, so he came in yesterday to do a session with the dancers. I’m really keen to see what advantage he can take of this opportunity to work with the company.

We will also be doing Overdrive in the programme, which will work amazingly at The Place. The dancers I made it on were terrific, but this is, I think, the most extraordinary cast I’ve seen doing it, and so I’m very excited about that. It felt very weird to be doing it all over England and not showing it at all in London, but I think it will really lift the roof off here. I feel very good about this June programme; audiences can’t get to see this kind of Richard Alston programme anywhere else, and to see 10 dancers on the stage at The Place is quite rare as well.

See Richard Alston Dance Company performing at Sadler's Wells on 26 and 27 January. Book tickets / 0844 412 4300


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