Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Programme I: ‘Homage to Alvin Ailey ’ at Sadler's Wells (& UK tour)

Performance: 4 - 15 Sep 07
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 5 September 2007

For the second time in three years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre has opened the Sadler’s Wells Autumn Season and it’s a very welcome return. Buoyed up by the success of its 2005 visit, the company’s tenancy of the Wells has been extended to encompass three separate programmes over a fortnight.

In many ways, the company remains a shrine to its founder who died – not yet 60 – in 1989, and this is the flavour of the first programme, showcasing four of Ailey’s own creations. Every Ailey show ends with his signature work, Revelations, reputed to be one of the most seen modern dance works in the world. It’s easy to understand why Revelations is so revered since it appears to encapsulate the whole of life in its ten spiritual and gospel songs: from the soul full of sorrow that soaks through the first and third movements (‘I been ‘buked’ and the hauntingly beautiful duet for Fix Me, Jesus) to the joyful marigold-clad matrons of the concluding Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, a surefire infectious way to get hands clapping, toes tapping and the audience on its feet for a rousing finale. Ailey’s ability to move a body of dancers as a single, rippling organism is virtually guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.

The preceding works, each set to music by Duke Ellington, don’t approach the greatness of Revelations but, each in turn, demonstrates aspects of the company’s diversity, whilst firmly fixing it at the interface of classical dance and modern movement. This is exactly the context for *Pas de Duke* which mimics the structure of a grand pas de deux in an entirely modern idiom. There’s no partnering – in fact, but for two momentary and sizzling brushes of the hand, there’s no physical contact between the dancers at all; there are no pointe shoes; and there’s hardly any elevation, with the choreography intensely focused on the dancers’ steps. But for all this, it is clearly recognisable as a pas de deux with variations for the two dancers (Linda Celeste Sims and Mathew Rushing) and a concluding coda. It has wit and invention but seems unable to decide whether it’s a pastiche or a full-on contemporary interpretation.

The opening work, *Night Creatures* ranged from the pedestrian to the vibrantly dynamic, especially in the strong rhythmic response to Ellington in the second of the three movements. In common with many of Ailey’s works it opens and closes with memorable tableaux *The River* _is another masterpiece of invention, full of wit and humour, especially in the Riba sequence where Guillermo Asca gets caught on a stage filled with four interlocked quartets, sometimes mimicking the signets’ dance from S_wan Lake’s’ White Act: Asca hams it up like a sort of Lee Evans character (or try Norman Wisdom for an older generation) caught inappropriately on stage in the middle of a performance. Another notable section is the vortex solo, performed with the long, elegant lines of Alicia Graf – still as impressive as when she visited London with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2004.

All the Ailey dancers possess a joyful musicality with wonderful timing and a vibrant passion for dance. Catch them while you can since there’s no guarantee that they’ll be back so quickly next time.

What’s On