Graceful steps of a dance-maker

Fifty years young: Richard Alston's friends celebrate his career.

It's hard to keep tabs on contemporary dance, unless you go often. As with the visual arts and music, activity at the inventive tip of things seems to change with the seasons. Labels come and go. Just one or two keep constant, like a pair of Levi 501s which look good whatever is on the catwalk.

Richard Alston is a Levis man - a staple of contemporary dance who was the first British choreographer of note to emerge from the creative flux of the 1960s, and who has been part of its warp and weft ever since. His career has had its low points (most notably his acrimonious sacking as director of Rambert four years ago), but his vision has never wavered. A Richard Alston piece from the mid-1970s is as easy to recognise as a piece he made last year. Which is not to say he hasn't moved on, but that his signature is writ large on his dances. Cool, literate, fluid, consummately musical: these are the constants of the dozens of works he has made over the years for Strider, Rambert, London Contemporary Dance, and more recently for his own group, the Richard Alston Dance Company.

Two nights ago, on his 50th birthday, Dance Umbrella paid tribute to Alston the dance-maker by assembling a one-off programme of his work dating back to 1970 (featuring a rare performance by the man himself in a piece ruefully entitled Dances of the Wayward Ancients). But his influence is greater than the sum of his choreography. Here, movers and shakers from the arts pay their tributes to Alston as educator, collaborator and catalyst.

ROBERT COHAN, director of the London Contemporary Dance Trust, 1972- 92

I first knew Richard back in 1967 from the old dance studio in Berners Place, when The Place was still a firing range used by the Army. Richard was unusual for a dance student, even in those early days. He'd been at Eton, then he'd been at art school, and there he was at 18 at an embryonic dance course full of passion and excitement. He and Sue [Siobhan] Davies very quickly distinguished themselves as people of great imagination and talent. Richard wasn't really a good dancer himself, but he had this enormous skill for creating movement. And as soon as we got into The Place and had the space to hold proper workshops, he started making dances.

SIOBHAN DAVIES, choreographer

I've known Richard since day one of the first year of the London Contemporary Dance School, where we were both rather unsuitable students - leggy, energetic, probably quite opinionated but very keen. Few were quite as untrained as we were, but we haven't stopped doing and thinking dance from that day. Being an artist and staying an artist, you really have to hang in there. Richard has done it for 30 years and it hasn't been easy all the way. Yet sometimes he can make a phrase of movement so beautiful and so simple it literally takes your breath away.

HOWARD HODGKIN, painter

Bryan Robertson, curator of the Whitechapel Gallery during the 1970s and 1980s, put Richard in touch with several artists with the idea of bringing together different art forms. Perhaps inspired by the Cunningham/Rauschenberg partnership, Richard wanted me to paint him a picture which he would then use as inspiration for a piece called Night Music. I refused. I wanted to design something for his choreography, but that wasn't his way. Nevertheless we went on to do Pulcinella, using Stravinsky's score, which was very brave considering Matisse had choreographed the original, and Picasso done the designs. I didn't dare look at those till much later. But it was a great success, and showed me what an incredible collaborator Richard is.

MICHAEL CLARK, dancer

I was 17 and at the Royal Ballet school, and someone saw me dance and invited me to join Rambert. I'd never seen them, but it seemed the perfect excuse to leave school and have a job. It was just fortunate that at that point Richard came to Rambert to make his first piece. It was a big jump from the Royal Ballet School, because Richard was talking about feeling movement from the inside, as opposed to how it looked from the outside. I didn't always understand him at first. At that point I thought I'd had it with classical ballet, that I was moving on by joining a modern company. But Richard made me see how useful my training could be. Over the time I was there he made several solos for me. The most famous was Soda Lake, which he built around this stainless steel sculpture. It marked a turning point for me as a performer. I felt that I had come of age.

ORLANDO GOUGH, composer

The great thing about Richard Alston from a musician's point of view is that he's willing to try anything, and approach it very seriously. He's worked with clubbing music, he's worked with really difficult music, like Birtwistle, which to most people's ears isn't dance music at all. But he seems to be able to find the meaning in it and the rhythm. He also takes enormous trouble to make sure the music he uses is very good, that he gets the best players, and gives them a proper amount of rehearsal time. So many big companies (some of the biggest, in fact) commission new music then don't follow it through.

Rather like the American Mark Morris, nearly all composers hanker after having their work used by him because he treats it so musically. The score is actually flattered by the choreography.

VAI BOURNE, founder of Dance Umbrella

Richard appeared in the very first Umbrella festival, on its opening night in November 1978. It was a double bill of the American, Douglas Dunn, with Richard Alston and dancers coming on in the second half. For the audience it was their first sight of post-Modern dance, and they were still getting used to Modern, to the Martha Graham stuff. The evening opened in complete silence with Dunn flat on his back, and it carried on like that for 40 minutes, only he ended halfway up the wall. It was too much for some people and they started yelling, saying this is rubbish. By the interval we were thinking: "We've hardly started and were going to lose our grant!" But then Richard came on with a solo called Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic. The audience loved it and it saved the day.

The fact that he agreed to dance again, 20 years on, for Dance Umbrella is very touching. He's the only one who's still active from that first festival. He thinks it's important for choreographers to keep in touch with their bodies because your ideas are essentially made on yourself. His is a very distinctive voice; his commitment is to steps, to dance as a language, without any other agenda. And that makes him, in the tradition of Graham and Tharp and Cunningham, one of our few true dance-makers.

The Richard Alston Dance Company is at The New Space, Malvern (01684 892277), 20-21 November.

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