Britten Dances into Snape with Richard Alston

Members of the Richard Alston Company take flight

Members of the Richard Alston Company take flight - Credit: Archant

This weekend sees two of the county’s leading arts organisations coming together to stage three days of music and dance. Andrew Clarke, our arts editor, talks to choreographer Richard Alston, who will be premiering a new piece inspired by his great hero: Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances - Credit: Archant

Suffolk plays host to a world premiere dance event next weekend when the Richard Alston Dance Company unveils a brand new work set to music written by Benjamin Britten and performed by the Britten Sinfonia in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

The event marries cutting edge contemporary dance with live performance from one of the nation’s finest orchestras, along with workshops, question and answer sessions and a satellite performance in Orford Church by rising star Joseph Toonga and charismatic cellist Leonard Elschenbroich.

In his work To Be Felt, Joseph Toonga will approach Britten’s music from a background in hip hop but shaped by a classical sensibility. His dynamic young company will perform new pieces to Britten’s Suite No 1 and Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. The recital also includes works by Kevin Volans and Witold Lutoslawski.

Toonga is the first recipient of DanceEast’s Choreographic Development Award, which supported the creation of To Be Felt. He is also one of only a small number of choreographers invited by Richard Alston to make work for his company.

The London Premier of Phaedra, choreographed by Richard Alston on the Richard Alston Dance Company.

The London Premier of Phaedra, choreographed by Richard Alston on the Richard Alston Dance Company. Phaedra features the mezzo-soprano Allison Cook in the part Benjamin Britten wrote for Janet Baker in 1975. . Picture shows Ihsaan de Banya (Hippolytus). - Credit: Archant

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The weekend, called Britten Dances, is a collaboration between DanceEast and Aldeburgh Music and sees two of the county’s leading arts companies coming together to shine a spotlight on Suffolk’s contribution to the national cultural economy.

Brendan Keaney, artistic director for DanceEast, said the Snape Maltings Concert Hall was the perfect setting for the premiere as Britten had long been one of Richard Alston’s greatest inspirations.

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“While Britten wrote just one ballet score, his music has inspired some of the world’s leading choreographers, no-one more so than Richard Alston, whose rich body of work features Britten as a recurring theme. On Friday and Saturday October 21-22, Richard Alston Dance Company will perform the world premiere of Alston’s choreography to Britten’s string arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chacony.

“Also in the programme, the taut drama of Phaedra, nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, features mezzo soprano Allison Cook re-creating her role for the first time since 2013.

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances - Credit: Archant

“Phaedra contrasts with the succinct and intimate Holderlin Fragments, danced to one of Britten’s lesser-known song cycles for voice and piano; the words are fragments from the poetry of the visionary, troubled, Friedrich Holderlin, and sung by the outstanding tenor Mark Padmore. The sheer exhilaration of Les Illuminations takes wild imagery from the life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his lover, the older poet Verlaine. Rejoice in the Lamb is danced to Britten’s superb setting of Christopher Smart’s wild, warm and witty poetry performed by Aldeburgh Voices.”

Aldeburgh Music’s chief executive, Roger Wright, said: “Because of the economics of modern dance, it is very rare for a contemporary dance company to have the opportunity to perform with a live orchestra. It is simply too expensive.

“Even if they are performing to a specially commissioned score, invariably they will be performing to pre-recorded music. What we can offer is the opportunity for them to dance to music provided by one of the nation’s finest orchestras, The Britten Sinfonia, and in one of the finest concert halls in the country. It will be a very special weekend.”

The Britten Sinfonia, directed by Pekka Kuusisto, will also be performing Three Idylls by Bridge and three more pieces by Britten; Prelude & Fugue, Lachrymae, and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge as part of what is described as a unique weekend displaying the brilliance and bravura of Britten’s writing for string orchestra.

Choreographer Richard Alston CBE

Choreographer Richard Alston CBE - Credit: Archant

In addition to the dance performances there is a pre-performance discussion on Friday evening with Roger Wright and Richard Alston, a Study Morning with Richard Alston, Luke Jennings, dance critic of The Observer, and Isabel Tamen, executive director of Richard Alston Dance Company, on Saturday morning, and performances by Aldeburgh Voices and Britten Sinfonia in the closing programme on Sunday afternoon.

For acclaimed choreographer Richard Alston, the weekend is all about the inspirational music of Benjamin Britten and bringing dance pieces that were inspired by the Suffolk composer back to their natural home. Although elements of the programme are new, the weekend of performances at Snape started life three years ago in London.

Roger said: “In 2013, which was Britten’s centenary, I put together a programme of dances set to Britten’s music for the Barbican in London. It was a huge success and when Roger Wright came to Aldeburgh – Roger has been a huge supporter of my work – he got in contact and asked if I could do something at Snape.

“We began to talk about what we could do over this weekend, so the programme is based on what we did at The Barbican. However, there are new elements, but even some of those older pieces will not necessarily be familiar to audiences. It will be the first time we have done Phaedra since the Barbican three years ago because it is so complicated and requires an orchestra and a mezzo soprano, the lovely Allison Cook.

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances

Richard Alston Company will be premiering new work at Snape maltings as part of Britten Dances - Credit: Archant

“But, I am excited and a little nervous to be making a new piece especially for Aldeburgh which is based on Britten’s arrangement of a piece by Purcell. We are also doing a piece which I really love called Rejoice in the Lamb, which we are performing with a local choir.”

Talking to Richard, it is easy to see the enthusiasm he has for Britten the man and for his music. He is also excited to see how audiences react to pieces.

“Les Illuminations will allow audiences to compare and contrast with the production which opened this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. I will tell you they will certainly contrast. Interestingly, the choreography for Les Illuminations was first done in 1994 when I staged it at Snape, so it will be something of a homecoming. We did it with the Britten Sinfonia – that was 25 years ago. We were youngsters then, and some of us are still there.

“I have very special feelings for Aldeburgh and for Britten. He was the composer I grew up with as a young boy. His work was everywhere and we sang it at school. But, as I started work as a choreographer I realised that he has such wonderful rhythm in his music and that’s why his work is so wonderful to dance to.”

Joseph Toonga rehearsing in Orford Church for the premiere of To Be Felt

Joseph Toonga rehearsing in Orford Church for the premiere of To Be Felt - Credit: Archant

It’s clear that Richard’s choreography is deeply wedded to Benjamin Britten’s music. Britten is not merely a notional starting point – his dance pieces are a physical manifestation of how Alston feels about the music he has grown up loving.

“Britten is a very particular composer for me. The more I work with his music, the more I fall in love with it. I think I have now choreographed 11 pieces to Britten’s music and you would have thought that I may have become jaded or it may have seemed repetitive, but not a bit. I love it. Every time I work with his music I am struck by the fact it is so contradictory. It is a mix of the complex and the bravely simple. He can be very direct and speak to people in a very straightforward way which can be extraordinarily moving.

“Les Illuminations carries the audience with the music. You hardly have a moment to pause but, also, he writes so wonderfully for the voice. Singing and dancing are very closely related. It’s all about the use of breath – that is why I love working with a singer on stage.

“Phaedra is an extraordinarily powerful piece, written at the very end of his life, and although he wrote it when he was very ill, it has such strength and power. He was very weak but the music is not. It’s fantastic. It’s a late masterpiece and he was inspired to write something for Dame Janet Baker, and this tour-de-force was the result.”

“Britten loved Purcell. During the first part of his career, he played an important part in reintroducing Purcell to the British public. He had been rather forgotten and Britten was of the firm opinion that Purcell was a genius and his work shouldn’t be overlooked.

“He did a lot of arrangements of Purcell’s work and did a lot of performances of pieces like The Fairy Queen and some of Purcell’s operas, and Britten arranged Chacony, which is a dance for a string orchestra, and I thought it would make another lovely contrast in an evening of contrasts; but I think it is a good idea to share not only what Britten wrote but also what he loved.”

n Britten Dances, The Richard Alston Dance Company in association with Aldeburgh Music and DanceEast, is being staged at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall and Orford Church on October 21 and 22, with Aldeburgh Voices on Sunday, October 23.

Joseph Toonga: A new take on the classics

Award-winning, emerging dance-maker Joseph Toonga, who works in a contemporary and Hip Hop fusion style, is one of only a small number of guest choreographers to have been invited by Richard Alston to make work for his company.

He has been commissioned by DanceEast to provide an alternative afternoon of groundbreaking dance, to be staged at Benjamin Britten’s much-loved Orford church, as a complementary event to the work being staged at Snape.

A group of dynamic dancers, choreographed by Joseph Toonga, will perform alongside star cellist Leonard Elschenbroich who will be performing a programme of works by Bach, Volan, Lutoslawki and Britten.

Toonga said that he was inspired by both the music and the location. “I love the space in the church. I have been out there several times just to soak up the atmosphere and to check out exactly the area I will have to work in.

“I feel really honoured to be asked to make work for this Britten Dances weekend. I have a relationship with both the Richard Alston Company and DanceEast, so it feels quite natural to be a part of this but also perhaps, offering something a little bit different.

“I was interested in using my dancers but with a different genre of music. I started street dancing at 16 but I didn’t go into proper, classical training until I was 20, so I like to think I am used to combining styles and influences and coming up with something new, something exciting and different.

“I am really looking forward to working with a live cellist for the very first time and seeing where that takes us.”

Jospeh Toonga: To Be Felt is at Orford Church on Saturday October 22 at 1pm and 4pm. Tickets should be booked at

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