Lyrical is a word I seldom use—perhaps because it too often stands for “I thought this dancer (or this step) was beautiful.” But Richard Alston’s choreography is lyrical in the deepest, clearest sense: It sings. His choreography hadn’t been seen in New York for 17 years until his company (founded in 1994, two years after he was ousted as artistic director of Ballet Rambert) came to the Joyce in 2004. That the group has returned so soon attests to the warmth of audience response to Alston and his dancers’ way with music.
In print, the British choreographer graciously acknowledges his main influences: Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham. He is not, however, much like either of them in terms of style. Like Cunningham, he shuns narrative and keeps his dancers barefoot. In the fluid reach and sweep of his phrases, he is, like Ashton, romantic.
The opening solo of Fever (2001) welcomes you to Alston’s playing field, in which music is home base. To the first song in a selection of Monteverdi’s ravishing madrigals, a woman in a brown silk dress (Maria Nikoloulea on opening night) dances in a circle of light. Her lovely, pliant movements speak of yearning, but more of harmony and acquiescence, melting into the song’s melody and its words that speak of love’s “sweet torment.” Alston doesn’t deal with violence or the bombarding fragments of a digital universe. Like Doris Humphrey,one of modern dance’s founding mothers (but without her exalted moralizing), he uses spacious movements and structures to suggest human feelings and—to a lesser degree—community.
Fever sweeps over the stage in overlapping solos, duets, quartets, and sextets. Charles Balfour’s lighting seems often to crossfade. On opening night, duets for Nikoloulea and Jonathan Goddard, Anneli Binder and Silvestre Sanchez Strattner, and Francesca Romo and Luke Baio have a kind of chaste tenderness with few lifts to show one partner dominating the other. But they aren’t what I’d call cool. Especially in Nikoulea and Goddard’s second duet, Alston creates surprising ways for the two to touch and twine, as well as simple ones (she lies on her side and he, kneeling, slowly and almost reverently strokes her leg from hip to knee).
In the program note that accompanies Such Longing (2005), Alston relates his early memory of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering when it was first danced in London. That ballet was, he acknowledges, a hard act to follow and daunting to anyone wishing to choreograph Chopin’s piano pieces. For a while, Dances interposes itself between me and the ballet: an onstage pianist (Jason Ridgway), a man (Martin Lawrance) dancing alone, a piece of music that conjures up Robbins’s choreography. I miss the sense of meditation and recollection that Robbins drew from the music, the contrasts, the focus. I tell myself to get over it, and I do. Lawrence is a splendid dancer; it’s mostly the way Alston stops so many dance phrases right on the end of a melody that jars me slightly. The solo for Baio is more fluent, and so are two silky, shimmering duets for Goddard and Sonja Peedo, Romo and Lawrance.
Gypsy Mixture (2004) seems something of a departure for Alston. The musical selections are drawn from a CD called Electric Gypsyland. Balkan music meets techno—and not the prettiest Balkan music either. The voices that mingle with barking dogs, yelling kids, and a pounding beat are often raucous. Here Peter Todd’s costumes are more colorful than his softly sparkly designs for Such Longing or Elizabeth Baker’s brown and cream ones for Fever, although Balfour’s lighting is still on the dark side. As one might expect, Alston doesn’t match the music in rowdiness or disorder, but he does acknowledge it. A harsh dialogue between male and female voices that occurs in the score is matched by the company’s five men and five women facing off in feisty, well-organized squads. A celebratory folk dance with clapping hints at community interplay. Occasionally you catch Goddard (who has a terrific final solo) twitching his hips. Most of the dancers (Gildas Diquero and Amie Brown join those already named) get a chance to be noticed. As well they should be.
The movements Alston devises are almost always delectable, wisely inventive without shouting their unusualness. I’m bothered at times by one or another of the dancers not carrying the impetus of a phrase through the transition steps between one “big” move and the next. I find myself looking at where and how they put their feet down (this may have to do with the choreography as well). I stop this scrutiny, because the dancers are superbly skilled, sensitive to the utopian climate that Alston creates without sentimentalizing its beauties and small griefs.