Richard Alston has been a central British contemporary choreographer since the 1970s, as a founder of "Strider", artistic director of "Ballet Rambert" and founder of "Richard Alston Dance Company". He has a reputation for seeking inspiration in music and working very closely and analytically with the score.
His work "Red run" (1998) is based on Heiner Goebbel's music of the same name. The "Red run" score is rich in variation and seems divided in a number of sections with different moods. The macro structure of the choreography mirrors the sections of the music, since the changes of music often correspond with exits and entrances that divide the piece in scenes. Most of the entrances are marked very clearly by a brief pause by the entering dancer, making us extra aware of the change and introduction of something new. The connection between entrances and music changes is so strong that an entering dancer "prepares" the audience to a musical change, like at the end of the second duo, or the introduction of a new instrument.
The piece starts with a section of alternating solos and duets, second section from the two simultaneous duets is marked by a more flexible use of dancers towards a scene where the entire company is on stage, then the end section builds down to the soloist disappearing in the dark at the end.
When the rhythm is the main element of the music, like in the opening solo, the dance contains lots of travelling and use of feet. This is probably due to the strong rhythmic clarity of moments when feet meet the floor. Alston loves complicated rhythmic patterns, syncopation and contrapuncts, and he reflects the abruptness of the music in the small freezes found in the choreography, for instance the position at the end of the first solo.
After the first solo- and a duet-section, the mood of the music changes, towards less emphasis on rhythm, using lower pitches and intensity of tone. Lighting darkens, and the choreographic vocabulary changes from travelling and steps to more torso-movements and floor work. There seems to be an affinity between darker, slower music and contractions and big curves. These conventions include the lighting design, which almost throughout the piece follows the pitch and speed of the music closely.
In the second duo, an inspiration for the dancers' "dialogue" may be two instruments alternating in the score. This also happens later in the piece, when dancers seem to respond to or connect to certain instruments, but Alston also uses the opposite effect, like in the middle of the second section, where four dancers work simultaneously with the same phrase of music, but emphasize different attacks or impacts, visualizing unpredictable rhythm. This builds a "dialogue" by several dancers on one phrase, as opposed to a dialogue by dancers following different phrases or instruments.
After the 3rd duo, Alston changes the pace of the dance by following the sections of the music less strictly with his scene changes, and marking them less clearly in the choreography of the entrances. This creates a more free-flowing section in the middle of the piece, by breaking away from some of the conventions the choreographer established in the first part.
This section culminates in a scene where the entire company is on stage. The music for this scene starts fast, then slows down and speeds up again. The choreography follows the music closely in the fast part, and the slowdown shows many of the affinities we've seen during the first section, but when the music speeds up again, the dancers take more time getting back to fast movements. This is a clear and conscious break with the conventions from the first section, and gives us an impression of tiredness, that the characters are becoming exhausted. Possibly the off-beat, contrapuntal work of the following section may be a similar effect: in the red, dry landscape on stage, the dancers are struck by fatigue and can barely keep up. They then gradually disappear, one by one.
The most important elements of the score seem to be rhythm and texture - lines of melody often are truncated and repeated - and they are the elements Alston seems to build his choreography on. Also, instrumentation is important and once in a while he may be playing on context and our associations to the sounds - like when the first couple enters the stage on "door squeaking sound". During the piece, the use of music is varied by Alston's construction of conventions he later breaks, which may serve to keep the audience interested. He seems to be clearly aware of conventional affinities between music characteristics and dance style he uses or creates and consciously "break the rules" once they are established. This shows his skill in analyzing and choreographing to musical scores, and keeps the dance un-boring and interesting to watch.
Bremser, Martha: "Fifty contemporary choreographers", Routledge, London and N.Y. 1999.
This Choreography and Music essay from my B.A. course at London Contemporary Dance School was written in 1999 or 2000.