Staying true: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Programme C
September 10, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Dance companies need to be constantly evolving, reflecting and anticipating the mood of their times. This is particularly difficult for companies, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater built on a great name but successive directors, Judith Jamison and current director, Robert Battle have stayed true to their founder’s mission of enriching modern dance while preserving the African American cultural tradition that gives the company its unique style.

Canadian choreographer, Aszure Barton, stepped up to the challenge offering contemporary innovation with a distinct African American flavour. Lift, to music by Curtis Macdonald is one of those work where you feel the music pulsing through the bodies as Barton conducts the flow of dynamics with the skill of a maestro.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in AwakeningPhoto Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Awakening
Photo Paul Kolnik

Lift is ensemble led; from the opening male group, a symphony of eloquent spines and rippling muscles, to the final group leaping vertically in a tight band like the legendary Masai warriors. But between there is space for individuals to make their mark. An intimate duet of tender tangled bodies slowly traverses the apron of the stage, and a jaunty gang of females congregate behind a solo male whose fluttering hands speak volumes. Barton has a gift for drawing specific small details into sharp relief before augmenting the numbers until the stage is heaving with magnificent dancers in powerful unity. It garnered fine performances from the dancers, tailored to their talents as a made-to-measure work for the company rep.

Robert Battle’s Awakening again uses most of the company. Set to a fierce score by John Mackey of blasting wind instruments, it draws remembrance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring although lacking the complexity of that score. The preordained patterning and ritual nature of the choreography add to the apocalyptical mood of the dance. The unmissable Jamar Roberts stands tall in the host of white clad acolytes and even if you don’t understand the message, the dancers’ commitment is unquestionable.

Jacqueline Green in Alvin Ailey's CryPhoto Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey’s Cry (dancer: Jacqueline Green)
Photo Paul Kolnik

Cry, is in the nature of an African American answer to Fokine’s Dying Swan: both so much more than the sum of their parts. Diminutive Linda Celeste Sims rose triumphantly to the challenge. She captured the dignity in tribulation, the sensuality of the complete woman finally letting rip in a jubilant waving of white frills. I could have done without the rather colourful back projections which didn’t add much but the emotion of Sims performance rose above it all.

There are only a few dance works that stand as icons of humanity and, with an added bonus of sheer enjoyment, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations stands at the pinnacle. In a week when ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists were out in force, it was fitting that the company, now a multi-racial troupe, were here to reinforce the message.

The Saturday matinee audience were young(ish) and vocal and earned themselves a full blooded performance of the work plus an encore that had the audience on their feet swaying to the traditional rhythms. I never tire of Revelations, it ticks all the right boxes: profound, funny and passionate. The choreography is gutsy: intensity expressed through deep contractions, yearning stretches and wild bounding leaps. It is also clever: the inimitable Akua Noni Parker with her quick wit and gossiping fan taking charge and leading the pack. The company worked with almost religious fervour, refreshingly devoid of pretension, and brought the house down.