Richard Alston brings Britten leaping back

Richard Alston, a leading figure in contemporary dance for more than 40 years, explains to SIMON PARKIN how the latest visit of the company that bears his name includes a new piece using music by Benjamin Britten that was first heard in Norwich.

When the dancers of the Richard Alston Dance Company step on stage at Norwich Theatre Royal to perform the brand new piece A Ceremony of Carols next week, they will be providing a 60 year echo as the Benjamin Britten music was premiered in the city.

The dance piece, the latest to be choreographed by Richard Alston for the acclaimed company that bears his name, won't quite have its premiere in Norwich — the first performances are in Canterbury this week — but it will be almost as fresh as when A Ceremony of Carols, a setting of 10 ancient carol texts for treble voices and harp, was first performed at Norwich Castle in December 1942.

'Britten's piece was premiered in Norwich in 1942. I'm not sure why it was in Norwich, but it was, so that's a nice little coincidence, we're bringing it home as it were,' chuckles the choreographer on the line from Canterbury where final rehearsals are underway.

'It's a company piece and in fact we've got five extra dancers, performers who are graduating from the school, so it's a cast of 16 which is a big cast for my company.

'It feels very exciting so I'm very optimistic that it will work but it's difficult to talk about actually because it's not even been on stage yet.

'I know what I'm groping with in the studio, but it's not quite there yet. We're having a final week of rehearsals, so when we come to Norwich it will be very fresh.'

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Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols during a hazardous wartime Atlantic voyage back to England aboard the Swedish cargo ship Axel Johnson.

'Britten went to America during the war then got terribly homesick and came back by ship on rather a long journey as it was the middle of war and they had to avoid all dangers,' says the choreographer, taking up the story. 'They stopped off on the way in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and while there he found in a second hand book store these old English carols. Because he had such strong feelings for England at that time, and was on his way home, he spent the rest of the journey setting them for boy's voices and, interestingly, for harp, they think because he was looking into harps at the time because someone had asked him to write a harp concerto. So it's an unusual piece, quite simple on the surface but actually extraordinarily direct and I think deservedly very popular.'

He adds: 'The music doesn't tell a story but it does have images from a medieval image of Christmas. The words very much emphasise the Virgin Mary.

'It is not a story ballet, though it is quite clearly about a group of people who gather together to celebrate something — and that something is definitely Christmas.'

Richard Alston came late to ballet — he was 17 before he saw his first production, but he has now been at the forefront of British dance for more than 40 years. The company that bears his name is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and inclusive of contemporary dance producers and have long been favourites with Norwich Theatre Royal audiences.

Next week's visit includes a typically diverse programme of three pieces. As we as A Ceremony of Carols, there will be Unfinished Business, set to Mozart's achingly beautiful Piano Sonata No.15, which Alston choreographed last autumn.

'It's a very pure lyrical piece of dancing, and it's absolutely beautiful music,' he said. 'It's called Unfinished Business because it is actually a sonata that Mozart didn't finish, but the movements that he wrote are wonderful. It's late Mozart and it's really the most exquisite music. The middle movement is a nine minute duet. I just wanted two dancers, the two most senior dancers in the company, Anneli Binder and Pierre Tappon, and it was very exciting to work in depth with them. Then I've added a finale with another piece of Mozart, which is quite fast and quite exciting.'

The programme comes bang up to date with another revisit of Roughcut, a piece that is widely regarded as a contemporary classic is set to American composer Steve Reich's New York and Electric Counterpoints for clarinet and guitar. Created in 1990, it has been a smash-hit with audiences who love its pure energy.

'It's very high energy, very different from the Britten, and a celebration of pure energy. The company do it wonderfully at the moment. It's another big company piece. We were invited to take it to New York recently and that went very well, so it's in good shape.'

The Theatre Royal dates, on February 14 and 15, comes just before the company head to the prestigious Sadler's Wells in London, and that is no coincidence. 'The Theatre Royal stage is one we know very well. Norwich audiences are always very appreciative but also look very sharply and if they don't like something they say so. That's probably quite Norfolk.'

'It's very encouraging that the audience still wants to see us and still comes to the theatre. They're a very loyal audience in Norwich, which these days is something to be valued.'

? Richard Alston Dance Company is at Norwich Theatre Royal on February 14-15, �18.50-�5.50, 01603 630000,