For those less attuned to the avant-garde offerings in the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, there is good old Richard Alston, the relatively tame British choreographer whose Richard Alston Dance Company returned to Montclair last Thursday. (There were also shows Friday through Sunday.)
Alston was schooled in Graham technique and in the “pure dance” aesthetics of the 1970s; his gung-ho athleticism and his taste for shape and structure are reassuringly familiar. Add spectacular scores by Benjamin Britten and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played and sung live by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Montclair State University Vocal Accord, and you have a program titled “Great Britten” that practically anyone will love. Although Alston isn’t primarily a storyteller, most of these scores (the Britten, anyway) include texts the choreographer uses as points of departure. The Mozart duet excerpted from Alston’s “Unfinished Business” describes a relationship, and hence imposes a scenario.
In “Rejoice in the Lamb,” dancer Nicholas Bodych acts as a stand-in for the mystical and half-mad poet Christopher Smart. Another dancer plays the poet’s cat; and the dance contrasts Bodych as a soloist, his body curving eloquently, with the ensemble representing creatures of the poet’s imagination. These characters can be friendly or threatening. The men lean back across a row of folded dancers (shades of “Les Noces”); all turn together in a wide, folk-dance circle; and finally they gather tightly around Bodych, imprisoning him. Yet he emerges from the kernel of this structure, still bemused and gently reaching for the light.
“Unfinished Business” is considerably less playful. Elly Braund and James Muller begin and end in the same place. Yet when their dance is over, Braund lies outstretched on the floor, apparently having expired in the act of reaching for Muller, who keeps an arm wrapped around himself defensively. In between these poles the choreographer develops a series of visual motifs — Muller leaning on Braund with his leg extended in penché arabesque; Braund previewing her final collapse or upended in a lift — but these inventions feel strained and the movement effortful. Watching this grim duet, it is hard not to regret the fluency of Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort.”
Alston is at his best in the concluding “Illuminations”: Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory verse allows the choreographer to imagine the poet’s affair with his older, married counterpart Paul Verlaine. In this version of events, Rimbaud appears as a betrayed innocent. Most effective — and perhaps closer to the truth— is a scene in which Liam Riddick, as an enflamed Rimbaud, rips apart a tableau of figures sleeping prettily.