Rockin’ to the rhythms with Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells
September 6, 2016 (programme A)

David Mead

It’s a strange thing. Every time Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater return to Britain, I find myself asking if it’s time to give them a miss. Have I seen them too much because, after all, what they offer hasn’t really changed over the years? And yet I still go, and it’s rarely far into the show before the music and rhythms take their infectious hold, and the feet and fingers start tapping along.

So it was at the opening night of their latest tour at Sadler’s Wells. Well, eventually, because the evening opened with something a tad different. Exodus by Rennie Harris opens with a pile of dancers (sinners maybe) in rough street clothes strewn across the stage, trembling, quaking and generally suffering and reaching for the heavens as a holy man walks through them.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Exodus by Rennie HarrisPhoto Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Exodus by Rennie Harris
Photo Paul Kolnik

The dance splutters along a bit at first, but Harris’ hip-hop background is immediately clear. As Exodus slowly builds and the dancers shift to all-white, the dance and the house music (arranged by Raphael Xavier, himself a professional hip-hop dancer) take on an insistent, non-stop feel; a wonderful combination of African rhythms and present-day American street that’s jammed with fast feet, jumps and quick changes of direction. Even more impressive than the movement is the way Harris crafts the dance in the space. The focus is almost always on a group, big or small, rarely on an individual and never on tricks. Yet still there’s always something interesting or new happening, including in the way he plays with the dancer combinations. The end comes out of the blue and is something of a surprise, but you’ll need to go see it to discover just what it is.

I was less taken with Four Corners by Ronald K. Brown. There are some nice moments, not least the gorgeous deep arabesques in a dance for the six women that seem to go on for ever, but the series of dances to various pieces of music struggles to gel.

Belen Pereyra, Glenn Allen Sims, Linda Celeste Sims and Matthew Rushingin Ronald K Browns |Four-CornersPhoto Christopher Duggan
Belen Pereyra, Glenn Allen Sims, Linda Celeste Sims and Matthew Rushing
in Ronald K Brown’s Four-Corners
Photo Christopher Duggan

Even in Four Corners it’s impossible not to admire the dancers, though. Top quality performances are expected as the norm from any big company, but with the Ailey dancers, the rhythms seem ingrained in the bodies in a way that is very, very special; like they were part of their DNA, part of who they really are deep inside and not simply put there by the choreographer. It’s something to be cherished.

That was not the case in the well-known pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, however. There seemed little connection between Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts, Parker in particular struggling to find any sensuality in the dance.

If there is one thing I wonder about Ailey’s programmes in particular, it’s the ending of every programme with Revelations. It is a masterpiece, but so for example is Balanchine’s Serenade, which I adore, but which I also don’t want to see every time I see New York City Ballet. Suffice it to say, those damned rhythms take hold again and I defy anyone not to lap it up. There were highlights a plenty with maybe the all-action Sinner Man (Michael Jackson Jr., Sean Aaron Carmon and Michael Francis Mcbride) just about taking the honours.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues at Sadler’s Wells (this and two other programmes) to September 17 before heading off on a month-long nationwide tour.

For Sadler’s Wells details and booking, click here or call the box office on 020 7863 8000.

For other tour dates and theatre links, click here.