Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Prgramme 2: Jazz at Sadler's Wells (& UK tour)

Performance: 4 - 15 Sep 07
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 7 September 2007

Perf: 5 Sep 07

I prefer ‘the Ailey’ as a shorthand title to the more formal acronym that is used throughout the programme – AAADT – which sounds more like an agricultural pesticide. The advantage of the acronym is that its middle letter – the 3rd A – represents the most vital ingredient of the Ailey, namely the fact that it’s quintessentially American in every way.

The American flavour saturates this jazz programme, from the high-rise New York skyline context of the opening work, *The Groove to Nobody’s Business* to the west side storyline of *The Road of the Phoebe Snow*, with its jets and sharks equivalents. Sandwiched between these works, *Portrait of Billie* tells the sad story of the fame and fallibility of an American idol, Billie Holiday. As well as her songs, the programme’s music comes from other American Jazz greats – Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

Whatever one thinks of the overall content, the Ailey’s Artistic Director (Judith Jamison) knows just how to send an audience home happy; usually, it’s because two-thirds of all Ailey programmes end with Revelations, that joyous ode to the Deep South, but for the first time in my experience this programme ended with something else. But Jamison is not about to give away her trump card and Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon possesses the same acceleration to a sizzling, jubilant conclusion.

It’s easy to be seduced by this rousing climax but, if I’m honest, it must be to say that a lot of what went before was generally disappointing, certainly not in terms of the performances of this wonderful ensemble but with much of the material they were given. This was never more evident than in the Billie Holiday piece, where the elegant Alicia Graf was almost left stranded for an opening solo of impossible blandness. The whole process seemed to revolve around unimaginative movement in high heels, leading to the concluding device of Graf retrieving Holiday’s trademark white corsage from inside her dress before fixing it to her hair. It was a blessed relief when she was able to get rid of the heels. Made in 1959, the New York Times described this as John Butler’s ‘finest dance work’ but, for me, the only things of merit were the Holiday songs in the soundtrack and the sterling efforts of Graf and her partner, Jamar Roberts, to do the best with what they had.

I’m afraid that I was also none too impressed with the world premiere of Camille Brown’s The Groove to Nobody’s Business, which was surprisingly dated for a new work. Had I not known it was a premiere I’d have been tempted to place it from the 70s or early 80s, with a theme of several young people encountering each other on the New York subway. The Groove to Nobody’s Business implies that no-one much cares and I’m afraid that this is a work that stayed in the memory for not much longer than the tube ride home.

Having said this, the stunning performances of Clifton Brown, Renee Robinson, Glen Allen Sims and their colleagues in the final two works was more than enough to enthuse any audience and they succeeded in pacing a relatively pedestrian dance programme into a brilliant, medal-winning sprint finish.

NB *Portrait of Billie* will now be replaced by Pas de Duke in this programme.

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