Just as a painter paints pictures, a choreographer makes dances. I get into the studio with the dancers and experiment. I’m — what? — 63; so I don’t go jumping about so much now; but I show what sort of a jump I want, and these young, fit people do it bigger, and I say if I like it or not.
I was a dancer, but that was a long time ago. I stopped in 1980. The tradition in modern dance is to have someone who is, first and foremost, a dancer, who shows other people what it is they want them to do. But I was a late starter; so I’ve always assumed that the dancers in the room are better dancers than I am. It’s a different way of making it work.
The reason why I wanted to dance was that I wanted to move to music — I’m a musician manqué. People dance for different reasons and for whatever it is that inspires them, and it isn’t necessarily first and foremost music, whereas for me it is.
Ever since starting my own dance company 15 years ago, I’ve really explored this rich meeting point of rhythm, melody. It’s so basic — since before civilisation. If you sit listening to a piece of music, you start tapping your toe and there you are: it’s the beginning of a dance.
It’s that impulse I’m really keen to capture — that enormously lively response which happens in the body. So I’m always trying to get that sort of energy so it doesn’t look like a series of shapes that have been designed and presented to you. There should be some sort of spirit.
I think I’m not boasting if I say I’m a good teacher. Teaching is a very important part in working with younger people, and in the way I work as a choreographer now with dancers. The way I’m giving them things to do is a way of teaching them how to do it.
I do enjoy teaching, but I enjoy choreography most of all. To get into the studio with a dancer and to be creating something is still to me the top of the mountain. It’s when I’m most happy.
Strangely enough, choreography doesn’t get any less exciting as you get older. I still never know what’s going to happen.
It’s very exciting working with interpreters right from the beginning, as opposed to a composer working on a piece of sheet music, or a writer constructing a play and then finding the actors. It’s quite exposing, but I enjoy that very much.
I like to make work in a happy atmosphere. There are artists and choreographers, famously, who like an atmosphere of friction to make their drama, but I freeze up if people aren’t happy. I often make jokes and keep the atmosphere very light.
As an artist, I never quite understand where things come from. They suddenly appear out of thin air or from the back of your consciousness — something from your inner being. The composer Stravinsky is famous for saying: “I was the vessel through which Le Sacre du Printemps passed.” (Actually, they found out that was nonsense, because he’d been doing all sorts of research into folk songs.) But it was a wonderful thing to say, and whatever it is that I make, it’s not like something I’ve dreamed up at home because it’s clever. There’s some sort of instinctive response that happens in the studio.
I never prepare things — not because I’m sloppy, I promise, but if I’ve done that, it isn’t alive when I put it in the studio. But if I say, spontaneously, “Why don’t you jump in that direction? Oh, you’re going to use that arm?”, it’s like a conversation between myself and the dancer.
In the end, though, I’m very specific about it. I don’t ask dancers to improvise or make up movement, which quite a few choreographers do these days. I want to do it myself — I’m too jealous of the pleasure.
Inspiration comes from something outside myself. I feel that I have antennae open. I prepare a lot. I work with music a lot, and it’s terribly important to get the music prepared in my mind. I listen to it a million times.
I certainly am actively interested in things spiritual, and I’m completely moved and convinced by an artist like Bach.
When we are on tour, I find the cathedrals are very important things to go and see. It’s the architecture, apart from anything else, and the intensity that comes from anonymous artists and craftsmen who’ve done something through faith and made the most extraordinary cathedral.
My new piece, A Ceremony of Carols, was commissioned by the theatre in Canterbury. They asked me if I would do something that had some link to Canterbury, and somehow it all fell into place. This was a piece of music I love, and it’s not that usual to have a boys’ choir in the theatre; so the fact that there was this building with it’s own choir down the road. . . We made enquiries, and found out they were very excited by the idea.
They can do anything they like, but they mustn’t miss evensong; so we have to rehearse on Wednesdays when they don’t sing. The choir will come up to Sadler’s Wells with the piece, and then we’ll have to decide how to do it in the future. We’ll do it later in the spring without a choir, but we’re going to Montclair University, just outside New York, in the autumn, and they have a choir preparing it already, to sing live with us. I’d love to see if we can develop that idea.
You can’t really jump on medieval stones — you have to build some kind of a platform to protect the dancers — but cathedrals are fantastic spaces.
Benjamin Britten was an incredibly important part of my growing up. As a young man from a fairly conventional, old-fashioned family, I didn’t have much of what you’d call modern art around, and I think the most avant-garde music I heard as a young boy was Britten. I can remember the first performance of the War Requiem.
I have this quirky theory, but I believe it utterly, that in both singing and dancing you use the breath; so music that is wonderful to sing is often wonderful to dance to. And so it has proved: the dancers are in very good spirits and keep saying that it’s because the music is so wonderful.
My work has steps, for a start — not all dance does. Sometimes dance is about imagery or some kind of theatrical impact. I love the language that is the movement of dance, and whether it is folk dance or ballet, there are steps.
That’s why, rhythmically, it’s similar to classical ballet. I’m also very attracted to line through the body, and line is a very important part of classical ballet. So that’s why it looks similar to classical ballet, but that doesn’t trouble me at all. I think some people think: “Well, that’s not very original!” But I’m concerned about making movement that is beautiful and musically expressively phrased.
In classical ballet, you can ask a dancer to do anything, and although things are being changed upside down now, the fundamental language is a series of known steps with known names — chassée, assemblé, pas de bourrée — and then you can change it. We’re dealing with steps that don’t have known names, although we do use the French ballet terms sometimes as a kind of shorthand.
I don’t think modern dance has to be so anti-ballet any longer, because ballet has changed so much. A choreographer who has trained very much as a contemporary dancer, Wayne McGregor, has become the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet. I think that’s quite significant. There’s no need to be that fierce any longer.
Merce Cunningham was a brilliant teacher — and he invented for himself a very unmannered language, which was a wonderfully rich starting point for me. We parted from each other in all sorts of ways, partly because I’m really happy to explore the interdependence of music and movement. Merce took dance away from music and gave it a totally independent rhythmic structure. It was a perfectly valid thing to do, but I have never wanted to do that.
I’m just as influenced by Frederick Ashton, whom I knew when I was director of the Rambert Dance Company. I found him a very sympathetic spirit, and loved his work. His musicality and sensitive physical vocabulary was a very different kind of inspiration, but just as strong.
I hope I’m never locked in a church. But if it was an interesting church, I’d like to be with someone who could tell me all about the art and architecture. And, if it’s Canterbury Cathedral, it would be wonderful to chat with Thomas Becket and ask him what really happened.
Richard Alston was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
A Ceremony of Carols by the Richard Alston Dance Company is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (8-9 February), and then in Norwich (14-15 February), Sadler’s Wells, London (29 February-1 March), and Malvern (13-14 March).