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A Ceremony of Carols at Sadler’s Wells

01 March 2012

by Terence Handley MacMath


EVERY dance company should have a Christmas ballet, even when it is wedded to modern dance. So, although Richard Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols is being performed for the first time in and around Lent, it was warmly received, and could happily take its place in the Christmas repertory.

It was premiered at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury (see separate review), but inhabited a larger stage at Sadler’s Wells on Thursday, 29 February, and benefited hugely from the generous space.

Alston has written: “Taking the lead from Britten, I have not tried to narrate the Christmas story as such, but rather to portray the poetic imagery of the medieval words. A Ceremony of Carols is a gathering assembled to meditate on the mystery of Christ’s humble beginnings — something the poor in the Middle Ages would have understood all too clearly.”

The sense of gathering was clear as the choristers from Canterbury Cathedral processed on the stage, led by choir director David Flood and followed by the dancers, joining Camilla Pay, the harpist. Contemporary dance rarely offers much in the way of scenery, but the dancers, in tunics of deep red shades, contrasted with the choristers in purple lined up behind them.

This contrast was reflected in all kinds of ways in the dance: the adult dancers contrasted with children singing; the brittle, cool music about frost and early spring, with the full-blooded passion of dance, beginning with a solo announcing the news Hodie, Christus natus est and moving into as sedate a revel as Alston’s lively company can muster.

Perhaps Lent is as good a time as any for this work: the most powerful section was the pas de deux for Mary and Jesus during the harp solo: dance of extraordinary intensity and rich theological nuance, made explicit by a very clever staging device: a white bench which became a manger, then a cross, then a tomb, as Mary saw what would happen to her child.

The London audience, warmed up by an earlier Alston work, the exuberant Roughcut, which is normally staged as the climax to an evening, responded enthusiastically to the greater solemnity of the Britten, suggesting that it will quickly take its place in the Alston canon.

The groundbreaking collaboration of a cathedral choir and dance company was very exciting. Alston’s company often works to recorded music. In this case, a key element would be lost. Fortunately, when it tours in future, Alston shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a choir to help him perform it — and maybe a cathedral to perform it in.

Further performances take place in Malvern (13-14 March) and Exeter (28-29 March). www.theplace.org.uk/radc

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