Benjamin Britten Celebration by Richard Alston Dance Company at Barbican Theatre – Lachrymae, Höldlerin Fragments, Phaedra & Illuminations

Four short ballets
Höldlerin Fragments [world premiere]
Phaedra [world premiere]

Dancers – Nancy Nerantzl, Nathan Goodman, Elly Braund, Liam Riddick, Oihana Vesga Bujan, James Muller

Richard Alston – Choreography
Benjamin Britten – Music [Lachrymae, Op.48]
Peter Mumford – Lighting [relit by Charles Balfour]
Belinda Ackermann – Costumes

Höldlerin Fragments
The Acclaim of Men – Nancy Nerantzl, Nathan Goodman, Nicholas Bodych
Home Oihana – Vesga Bujan, Liam Roddick
Socrtaes and Alcibiades – James Muller, Liam Roddick
Youth – Nathan Goodman
Midlife – Oihana Vesga Bujan
Lines of Life – The cast

Richard Alston – Choreography
Benjamin Britten – Music
Charles Balfour – Lighting
Fatini Dimou – Costumes

Phaedra – Allison Cook
Hippolytus – Ihsaan de Banya
Theseus – James Muller
Oenone – Nancy Nerantzl
Chorus – Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes, Marianna Krempeniou, Nicholas Bodych, Nathan Goodman, Liam Riddick

Richard Alston – Choreography
Benjamin Britten – Music
Lighting Charles Balfour – Lighting
Costumes Fatini Dimou – Costumes

Rimbaud – Liam Riddick
Verlaine – Nathan Goodman
Being Beauteous – Elly Braund
Royauté Couple – Nancy Narantzl, Nicholas Bodych, Marina Oihana Bujan, Marianna Krempeniou, Jennifer Hayes

Richard Alston – Choreography
Benjamin Britten – Music
Peter Mumford – Lighting [relit Charles Balfour]
Fatini Dimou – Costumes

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 6 November, 2013
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

As part of its celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s centenary year, the Barbican Centre has had the brilliant idea to call in Richard Alston, one of this country’s great choreographers and a lover of Britten’s music, to present a quadruple bill of dance works set to the composer’s music, two of which are world premieres. Alston has risen to this challenge admirably, providing an evening of the highest musical and dance standards.

Alston’s greatest assets are, in the time of prolix choreographers, his eloquent brevity, and also his direct relationship with the music. It is clear that he loves this composer, but it is a mark of his talent that his invention responds to the sometimes challenging music with an engaging simplicity and directness. His work is not generally narrative, although here are two pieces with storylines – the revival of Illuminations (initially entitled Rumours, Visions at its creation in 1994) onto which the choreographer lays lightly the tale of the poet lovers Rimbaud and Verlaine, and the powerful tale of Phaedra. In these, he impresses again by the economy of means he employs – narrative and meaning are conveyed cleanly and without fuss, marking Alston out when so many huff and puff over ‘telling the story’. Alston’s dance vocabulary is what can be termed ‘classic-contemporary’, his Merce Cunningham formation clear for all to see. Gestures are bright and bold, the body used to mark lines and shapes in the space around them, the movement grounded with an emphasis on their human quality – they possess a weightiness which is alien to Classical Ballet.

No praise too high for the music-making in this fascinating co-production: the Britten Sinfonia, arranged at the back of the Barbican Theatre’s expansive stage, and led by its charismatic director Pekka Kuusisto, sounded superb, its knowledge and love of this composer’s music clear in its playing: a notable contribution.

Two singers of great artistry demonstrated their mastery of Britten’s difficult idiom: mezzo Allison Cook in Phaedra and tenor Robin Tritschler in Sechs Höldlerin Fragmente and Les Illuminations. The company looked liberated on this large stage – it clearly relished the space afforded. Lighting was effective, achieved through sophisticated simplicity, perfectly apt for Alston’s dance. The members of the company served its director-choreographer with unfailing commitment and artistry.

However, the opening work Lachrymae underwhelmed: a very low-key choreographic musing on Britten’s low-key musical thoughts. The new work Höldlerin Fragments cleverly evoked the poet’s idealised Hellenistic world. Dancers (summer dresses for the women, bathing costumes for the men) react spontaneously to the music, the third section ‘Socrates and Alcibiades’ strikingly simple in its means; Nathan Goodman was wildly impetuous as Youth. Of the two remaining pieces it would be invidious to opt for one or the other: Illuminations is a fascinating evocation of the blazing comet that was Rimbaud, his impetuosity, intensity and brilliance emerging from the movements given here to the gifted young Liam Riddick. Musically, this was a real highlight with tenor soloist Tritschler capturing the radiance of Britten’s invention and highlighting its conscious ‘Frenchness’.

Phaedra is a new work and is striking both in its look – Fontini Dimou’s mainly-red costumes totally apt – and in Alston’s expert use of a singing Pheadra (the musically and dramatically impressive Allison Cook) with a cast of dancers. Ihsaan de Banya makes for a physically arresting and youthful Hippolytus while company newcomer James Muller finds gravitas as his father Theseus. The other dancers work as a sort of Greek chorus, almost always present and witnessing the action. The work last a mere 15 minutes but much of Racine’s Phèdre is there. It is a notable creation.

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