Sadler’s Wells

5th September 2019

Stuart Sweeney

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre came to the Wells with three programmes. This iconic modern dance company remains underpinned by Ailey’s development of Horton technique. In Dance Magazine, Rachel Strauss wrote: “With a sprinter’s upper body strength, a gymnast’s flexible lower back, and a classical dancer’s articulated feet and legs, Horton dancers are athletic and expressive instruments.” Power and control utilised for artistic and often emotionally charged effect are a cornerstone of Ailey performances.

As always Ailey’s most famous work, Revelations, featured in each programme. It’s a debating point whether this perpetual inclusion is good for audiences or indeed the dancers. Having seen Revelations again, I can understand the company’s decision. In one of the strongest openings you are likely to experience, the beautiful, melancholy spiritual, I’ve Been Buked, sees the dancers in a triangle and as the lights come up they sway expressing life weariness but also resilience. They stretch and bend in perfect unison and arms point to the Heavens and change into graceful curves. The dancers break out of the triangle in the faster sections but always return to the opening triangle.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Throughout the ten spirituals that comprise Revelations, Ailey varies the mood, the costumes and the combinations of dancers to retain our attention. The brown costumes of the opening sections give way to brilliant white and the opportunity for a more upbeat and playful mood in Processional and Take Me To The Water. In the solo Ready, a man beseeches to be ready to go to Heaven, with much of the choreography based on floor work for the supplicant. Daniel Harder is outstanding in the role and his suppleness, grace and pace enhanced all his appearances at the Wells.

The three final songs introduce more formal costumes with bright yellow long frocks and the men in waistcoats. The ladies enter singly and in small groups as if gathering in a town square, flapping their fans while gossiping and bickering – great fun. Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham ends Revelations on a high note of energy for all the dancers. I suspect that the standing ovation that followed both the performances I saw is typical, leading to an encore of Rocka…With both audiences and dancers getting such pleasure, it is easy to understand the rationale for this unique repertoire planning.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in EN
Photo: Paul Kolnik

For Programme B, we saw three other works. The most successful was EN by Jessica Lang, the title taken from a Japanese word signifying circle, destiny, fate and karma. The passage of time is a recurrent theme for this ensemble work with ticking sounds, arms like clock hands and a pendulum bob swinging across the stage in one section. A permanent circle at the back of the stage, bathed from behind in varying shades, makes a fascinating setting for Lang’s dynamic choreography and imaginative use of space. Jacqueline Green brought lithe and powerful moves to all her sections.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in The Call
Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik

The Call by Ronald K. Brown combined Bach with jazz and African music. Brown describes his work as “a love letter to Mr Ailey” and we saw Ailey like extensions, but I found The Call uninspiring and sections of dull shimmying seemed redundant especially with dancers of this quality.

Juba was created back in 2003 by Robert Battle, now the Ailey Artistic Director, and his first work for the company,. To a strident John Mackay score, the four dancers perform a short ritual with echoes of The Rite of Spring. There is no shortage of energy and the latter stages are rhythmically demanding, but the unrelenting nature of both music and choreography left me uninvolved as the work unfolded.

In the three programmes presented on this visit, Revelations was the only Ailey work on show. Given the varied quality of the other company repertoire, I would be interested to see more of the founder’s 72 strong output, even if they are not up to the standard of his signature work.