Appreciation in the Nation

I often wonder about the audience when I go and see a dance piece. Are they primarily people involved in the dance industry? Aspiring young dancers and their parents being pulled along with them? Or people completely new to the art form, who thought, hell I’m going to watch Richard Alston Dance Company on Friday night, I have no idea what it’ll be like, or what to expect, but I’m going to go anyway. These musings tend to keep me entertained during intervals, especially when I can sneakily eavesdrop on the people around me discussing what they’ve just seen.

Last night I went to see Richard Alston at Norwich Theatre Royal. Norwich being a place with considerable less dance than Leeds, London and Manchester, but still managing to have in my opinion a healthy dance programme. Taking into account the fact that it was half term, that there was an awesome £6 offer for under 25’s and that Alston is one of the most well known contemporary dance companies nationally I doubt the auditorium was much over half way full; with all these variables it should have been fuller. And from my observations the majority of the audience, consisted of:

– the over 65’s

– middle aged couples

– and female teenagers with parents

This is of course a generalisation, and I didn’t have a chance to make a tally of detailed statistics, but you get the gist. A pretty unvaried audience. An audience who I can suggest don’t have a huge background in contemporary dance, and perhaps align themselves with the category: I’m going, but I don’t know a lot about dance, or indeed if I do know about dance, perhaps not so much about contemporary. Although I could be wrong, don’t quote me on this!

Building on this, I happened to be sat near a trio of people from Europe who knew a little about ballet, but didn’t know much about contemporary dance, and a pair of middle aged women, who had watched Strictly Come Dancing, Big Ballet and did a little dancing when they were younger. Neither groups of people were from the dance industry and all had different perceptions and expectations of the pieces performed.

I often struggle with Richard Alston. I have great appreciation for what he has done and continues to do for contemporary dance, the skill of his dancers and their musicality, but I often don’t reach the same level of excitement that I get from new emerging choreographers. I think it is rooted in perhaps, the very stylised way Alston choreographs- he is very clearly influenced by his time studying at the Merce Cunningham school, as you can count the curves, tilts, and grand jetes as the piece goes on. You know what to expect, it is consistent, but just not surprising- something that if you have read my previous posts you’ll know I really value in dance pieces. Now, my observations on the audience will seem a little redundant at the moment, but stick with me- I’m getting to it.

In relation to this, I wonder whether it is because I am studying dance that I hold this point of view. I spend too much time analysing the dancers and the choreography. I’m trying to catch them out when they’re out of time or their arm placements are slightly off, mainly because if I spot their mistakes they become more real. I think with this, and my being in training, they become reachable, or even obtainable as I want to analyse the movement and performance to see whether I could do it myself. Could I see myself up there, doing that choreography, because that’s ultimately what I want to be doing! Yet, how I watched the pieces was at complete contrast to the two groups of people around me. They were filled with wonder and amazement, as they watched people moving in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine doing themselves.

The first piece Rejoice in the Lamb, inspired by composer Benjamin Britten (as he came from East Anglia it was rather fitting that it was performed in Norwich) and the 18th Century poet Christopher Smart, was a pleasant piece that suited the baroque music. Evocative of court dances with the use of pair dancing, and circles it seemed to pay the same homage to God as Britten’s music. In other words, the dance was a physical manifestation of the music, very literal. In line with how I feel about Alston, I appreciated the choreography, the formations and style, but it didn’t wow me. However, when I compare my response to that of my neighbours who thought it was angelic and graceful, it made me feel like I had viewed Alston through a prejudiced and therefore pessimistic lens.

Next, was Unfinished Business Duet, a duet that the New York Times had described as ‘the greatest dance duet created this century by anyone except Merce Cunningham”- high praise to live up to. Inspired by Mozarts delightful K533 Andante, with a live pianist this duet was touching and controlled as it flowed around the stage. Like much of Alston’s work I could easily identify the curves and contractions, but there were some powerful lifts that bonded dancers Braund and Muller, and in doing so you couldn’t fault their execution. My response to the duet follows a similar pattern to that of Rejoice in the Lamb, I appreciated it, I could follow the forms, but was still waiting to be excited. During the pause, however, I heard something that made me totally rethink how I watch and see dance.

Force and grace, the combination is difficult to achieve, but they had it. Attentive to so many details, it was beautiful.

I think that this observation, is perhaps one of the most primal and to the point. That they could see what dance is without the adornment of identifying each movement, or analysing the technique is amazing. Just seeing, taking it all in for what it is: a lucid feat of artistry and athleticism, made me totally rethink how I see dance. This is something that I think we forget to do when you are involved in dance. Everything becomes about the execution, the success of the choreographic devices and not about the dance itself, just watching people dancing.

The last two pieces, Lachrymae and Madcap, I watched with this idea of force and grace in mind, and have to admit that I did to an extent thoroughly enjoy them. I didn’t see individual steps, I didn’t analyse execution I just watched and enjoyed. I was surprised, excited and wanting more. I’m not sure whether it was this new idea of force and grace that instigated this perception of the pieces, but I’m going to say it is. I hope in future I can continue to take this on board and not over-analyse (to death) dance pieces, maybe I can grow fond of Alston?

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