Sadler’s Wells, London
September 4, 2019
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a company like no other. Firmly rooted in the African American experience, it offers a cultural identity, a bloodline, that other companies in our culturally diverse world can only dream of.
Rennie Harris’ Lazarus is a little unwieldy, the two acts hang together awkwardly, but it speaks for the modern Africa American with a voice of both power and poetry. It’s contemporary in its fragmentation, drawing from a range of music including Nina Simone and Terence Trent D’Arby, and highlighting phrases: ‘a black man in a white world’, ‘a new day’ and Ailey’s ‘blood memory’. The choreography is Harris’s distinctive Philadelphia style of hip-hop, a body language as fluid as mercury, silver-tongued but not lacking bite. It’s potent stuff.
The opening is dark, both in theme and in the minimal lighting where fleeting images are captured and then disappear, like a dream or a nightmare. Paced with restless energy, figures constantly traverse the stage, always journeying on with each episode touched by pain. Inspired by Ailey’s legacy, Harris builds a loose narrative around protagonist, Daniel Harder, who is enveloped, moved and sustained by the flow of history: at times strangely passive, at others standing apart and forging his own path. His giant strides forward bring him to his knees but obdurately, he rises and continues.
The dancers, dressed in work-a-day clothes, look like nobody special, but dance like those possessed. They join in brief moments of rhythmic unison, a dance of survival and liberation. It is only later in the second act that the vibrant spirit forged in this dark history breaks out with demonic power.
Now in bright dance clothes and bathed in indigo light, the cast prove themselves top of their game. Jeroboam Bozeman leads the team, a hard act to follow, but with plenty of fierce competition in a brilliant display of hip hop. Lights down and curtain calls to a storm of applause are ruthlessly cut short as we return to the bleak earlier landscape in an epilogue closing with a solitary figure silhouetted against the backdrop. Lazarus reviews the African American experience from a modern perspective. Aware, as W.E.B. DuBois was, that ‘a mere ban on discrimination would not redress centuries of devastation’ but armed with knowledge, resolution and talent. Hip hop is proving an ideal language to make the point.
Revelations is the heartbeat of AAADT. I first saw it in Washington DC in 1976 and I don’t think there’ll be a time when I don’t want to see it again, but the arguments continue against its inclusion at all performances. To the emotional drive of the spiritual songs, the dancers reached expressive heights. Particularly of note were Michael Jackson, Jn. and Akua Noni Parker in Fix Me, Jesus, the sincerity of Clifton Brown in I Wanna Be Ready, and the driving passion of Bozeman with Solomon Dumas and Chalvar Monteiro in Sinner Man. The searing honesty of Ailey’s signature piece ensures its place in the dance canon.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues at Sadler’s Wells in this and two other programmes to September 14. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for details and tickets.