Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - Programme A - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 6, 8, 14 & 17 September 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 7 September 2016

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

Performance reviewed: 6 September

Three A’s stand proudly at the front of the acronym that identifies this extraordinary company: they represent the late Alvin Ailey and America but they should also be seen as a permanent triple A-star rating.

As abound since this programme encapsulates a kind of reverse grand tour of African American culture, beginning with the free-flowing athleticism of hip hop in Rennie Harris’ Exodus; then the earthy African spiritualism of Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners; finishing – as always – with Ailey’s own classic, Revelations, a celebration of the joy, fear and grief of African Americans, expressed in treasured dance interpretations of their spiritual music, from Gospel to the Blues. It may seem absurd, but I was put in mind of great gypsy flamenco; not, of course, in terms of music or steps, but in the expression of wonderful artistry that has been born out of great suffering.

Exodus opened quietly in soft, diffused light, spiralling downwards in the criss-crossing streams of James Clotfelter’s clever designs. The performers are scattered randomly around the stage; lying, kneeling, standing; their physical detail barely discernible in the smog, like sinners in an opium den awaiting their salvation. Into the midst of this mist, arrives the imposing figure of Jamar Roberts, clearly cast as their Redeemer.

Rafael Xavier’s music begins in a similar fog of clicks, ticks and whirls before a gunshot heralds a gradual transition into an infectious house mix that steadily attracts the participants into the exodus towards unified movement. It takes a while to fasten onto the steady beats and rhythms but when it gets there we can but marvel at the lightning-fast, harmonious footwork of these incredible dancers.

If the power of Roberts’ presence – and, perhaps, his holiness – needed accentuating, he wore only pure white track pants; his glistening muscular torso, offsetting the mix of everyday street clothes worn by the other fifteen dancers. As the work progressed, each left the stage and returned, dressed all in white with identical knee-length, sleeveless tunics, trousers and trainers. One man (Matthew Rushing) stands apart, refusing to acknowledge or follow this guru, sticking resolutely to his mustard-coloured trousers; until, finally, he too is swept up into the unified movement of their jubilant, collective enlightenment. As the group converges into a single, fluid organism another gunshot brings down the leader and the curtain falls. But, it’s not the end as the audience’s applause is interrupted by a final dance of resurrection.

The choreography is slick, fast and remarkable for taking the essential individualism of hip hop, as exemplified by the concept of “the battle”, and turning into a unified corps dance with the same exceptional speed and movement variety. We don’t yet know much about Rennie Harris in the UK. He is a multi-award-winning American choreographer and Exodus is the perfect calling card to show us why.

Four Corners is also riven with powerful spiritual symbolism and supported by an extraordinarily diverse score, mostly in compositions by Carl Hancock Rux. The musical tapestry causes a major shift of mood midway through the piece. If it begins in America, it certainly ends somewhere in Africa, with the undulating, lyrical rhythms of Yacoub’s Da Na Ma. African influence is also to be seen in the elaborate headscarves and flowing costumes (in limited colourways of greys and purples) by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya.

Two men (Rushing and Glenn Allen Sims) and two women (Belen Pereyra and Linda Celeste Sims) represent the earth’s “Four Corners”. Brown’s choreography is busy, but in a good way; undulating hip-rocking, side-stepping, high-kicking adds richness to the music’s pulsating beats. The kaleidoscopic quartet dance for the principals maintains this eclecticism of fast, synchronised movement within a tight geometric space. Arresting solos by the four lead dancers provided gentle, fluid contrasts to the dynamic excitement of the group work (including a corps of seven additional dancers).

Revelations was preceded by another small snippet of Americana, albeit made by a Brit, Christopher Wheeldon, back in 2005, when resident choreographer at New York City Ballet. The full work is still performed regularly: it came into The Royal Ballet’s repertory in 2016, where it will reappear as part of a triple bill, next March. But, the middle pas de deux, set to Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Spiegel im Spiegel, is often performed separately, as here. The popularity of this piece of music is, of course, based upon its emotional intensity, summoning feelings of love and loss and Wheeldon enhances that mood with choreography that fits like a handmade glove. It needs to be danced with the same quiet intensity of feeling and Roberts returned to partner Akua Noni Parker (a striking, curvy dancer with close-cut blonde hair) in a duet of mature and moving expressiveness.

There is little more that can be said about Revelations, the company’s signature work, performed to end virtually every programme they dance. Ailey – who died in 1989, when aged just 58 – brought to bear all the experiences of his Texan childhood in the Great Depression of the 1930s; abandoned by his father, closely-tied to the itinerant life of a mother constantly seeking work in the deep south’s abusive climate of racial segregation. The sadness and the grief is present in several of the separate dances that comprise the piece, notably in I Been ‘Buked and Fix Me, Jesus; but there is also optimism (I Wanna Be Ready) and joy (Wade in the Water). The final vignette to Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham seems always to enjoy a welcome reprise (missed by so many who left at the first curtain call); so infectious that it invariably has the audience clapping along.

Although the company’s history is dominated by this one iconic work, it routinely commissions new additions to the repertoire. This Dance Consortium UK tour comprises six mixed programmes, made up of ten different works. Exodus premiered in New York just over a year ago, and Four Corners was made just two years previously. It would be fatuous to suggest that either will ever come close to rivalling Revelations but they are both new works of exceptional quality. This opening programme was sleek, elegant, foot-tapping, purposeful triple-A starred Dance Theatre. It doesn’t get much better.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continue with three programmes at Sadler’s Wells until 17 September

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Main photo Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ Exodus by Paul Kolnik

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