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British audiences know they’ll get no sex and violence from Richard Alston. No steamy narratives either. Dancers will not stare balefully at them. What Alston has always delivered—as director of Ballet Rambert from 1986 to 1992 and since then as director of his own company—are skillfully designed, scrupulously musical dances that create the image of a sweet-tempered tribe at play. The 11 dancers’ feet are busy; their bodies curve and tilt with the music’s flow. You can posit an influence from Merce Cunningham, with whom Alston studied in the 1970s, and from lyrical ballet of the sort Alston’s compatriot Frederick Ashton excelled at. However, Alston’s distinctive, gently quirky movement is more abandoned than Cunningham’s, and the dancers band more often in unison, all facing the same direction.
Brisk Singing is the friskiest of the pieces Alston’s company showed at the Joyce—full of bounding steps and nonstop flurries and floods of dancing set to liquidly gorgeous selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Les Boréades. The eight dancers sometimes form couples, but only occasionally do they touch or do men lift women; once Luke Baio extends a leg behind him, and Francesca Romo treats it as a turnstile. “Lovely!” breathes the man sitting behind me, as the curtain descends on this sunny, cool Eden. And who could argue?
Music inspires Alston’s dances, and—like Mark Morris, but even more so—he weds his steps and phrases very closely to a given piece’s rhythms. The tactic can be deeply satisfying but also a little Mickey Mouse. At one point in Brisk Singing, the dancers are lying on the floor, but when a little flourish of notes appears in the music, they obediently patter their feet on the floor.
There’s more partnering in Shimmer, and the piece, set to excerpts from Ravel’s Sonatine and Miroirs, really does gleam. Designer Julian Macdonald’s short, cobwebby tunics in black, white, or blue are sewn with Swarovski crystals that glint in Charles Balfour’s lighting. Alston choreographed the work in memory of his friend Bryan Robertson, who loved Ravel’s music. You don’t have to know that to divine the delicately elegiac quality the dancing draws from the music (played onstage by pianist Jason Ridgeway)—especially in a duet for Sonja Peedo and Martin Lawrance that breaks the prevailing tranquil dynamics with sudden, slashing moves, and in Lawrance’s long, magnificently performed final solo.
The driving, repetitive patterns of Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study #1 incite Alston to clever counterpoint. He sets squads of five and three or four and five threading through each other—breaking these designs with duets and tracing clever, energetic lines on Riley’s bold graph paper without any teeth-gritting intensity. Some critics and spectators have found Alston’s mild-mannered choreography bland; you have to quiet your pulse to appreciate its beauties—so sensitively rendered by his wonderful dancers.
Douglas Dunn looses a very different tribe in Central Park’s Pinetum (it was herded by park officials to a less cherished strip of lawn before the first two performances ended). A sign warns that “all dogs must be on a leash in the Pinetum at all times,” but aside from some doggy bits in the choreography of The Higgs field, these people look harmless to me.
Harmless but not usual. Good-natured, rough-and-tumble, solicitous of one another, they caper, frolic like monkeys, jump like frogs, skip oddly, stagger, reel, jostle together clumsily, and indulge in sort-of folk dances. They wreathe their arms and wrench themselves around. They do very little of this in unison. You focus on someone sitting still (Dunn, say, quietly inspecting his earth-stained hand); suddenly a burst of activity occurs at the edges of your vision, then subsides. Another person begins a slow balancing act. Someone chases someone else.
The beginning is a witty metaphor for the choreographic process. The five performers sit attentively clumped watching Dunn, who stands before them—bent over, legs spread, hands braced on his thighs—like a coach outlining a play. After a few seconds, Kindra Windish crawls between his legs and moves out in a slow-motion run. One by one the others pass him, maybe lifting one of his arms to duck under it, using him as a gateway into dancing.
The choreography stitches many fascinating modules into a field of action and stillness that builds as it alters. Early on, Ryuji Yamaguchi, head bent almost to the ground, is helped to walk by Francis A. Stansky and Jessica Weiss. A little later, after Stansky has a minor fit of stumbling turns and jumps as if being attacked by gnats, you notice Yamaguchi lying on the ground, opening his mouth in a silent yell. But you don’t connect any such activities; they’re simply behaviors to be observed, wondered about, entranced by.
There’s no music, except the birdcalls and the squeak of the swings behind us, the muted chatter of passersby and bench-sitters, a man on his cell phone (“You are the cool cat! We’re coming over”). A Russian woman narrates the choreography for her three-year-old (“Oop!” she laughs when Christopher Williams tumbles down). Later the child performs a credible imitation of what she’s seen. Spent blossoms drift from the trees. A robin and a squirrel join the dance, needing no guidebook to the customs of this alien yet profoundly familiar culture.