fri 20/09/2019

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells review - Still more Revelations | reviews, news & interviews

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells review - Still more Revelations

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells review - Still more Revelations

America's favourite dance ticket shows us how it's done

Form and feeling: Ailey dancers in "I Been 'Buked", the opening number of "Revelations"photo: Nan Melville

There is no equivalent of the Ailey phenomenon. This is a modern dance company with a New York square named after it. It’s a dance company that has performed at the inauguration of two presidents. Its calling card, Revelations, a suite of dances first performed in 1960, is the most-watched modern dance work anywhere, ever.

And how could it not be, when the Ailey bills it as a closer at every show? No matter which of three programmes you book to see at Sadler’s Wells, you will get the signature sign-off. It’s half an hour and a bit of kinetic joy drawing on Ailey’s memories of the Baptist community in which he grew up in segregated rural Texas. More broadly, though, it evokes the emotional drama of the African-American experience, showing how hope and faith have prevailed. It’s this, as well as the beauty of its shorter segments, that makes Revelations a non-negotiable must-see.

A member of the audience at a performance in White Plains, NY, once solemnly told me that Revelations had been adopted as an official anthem by the US government after 9/11. That isn’t true, but it’s indicative of the moral fervour that still surrounds Ailey’s masterpiece.

Ailey dancer in "I Wanna Be Ready" from "Revelations"What it achieves is a startling fusion of form and feeling. I’m not sure you’ll find an ensemble number more perfectly crafted than “I Been ‘Buked” with its phalanx of raised palms, the first of the work’s 12 short segments, all of them set to late 1950s recordings of gospel rock standards. The fruity soundtrack is the single element that hasn’t aged well, yet such is the iconic status of this almost-60-year-old production that it's about as likely to be updated as Donald Trump’s golf slacks.

“Wade in the Water” is another highlight as a man and a woman, in Persil-white clothing, submit to baptism in a river represented by two waving swathes of blue cloth. It’s to the work's credit that the sensuality of the pair's vigorously undulating moves never once seems at odds with their high spiritual purpose. Clearly, God maketh beautiful black bodies that they might fully express the miracle of His creation.

Everyone loves the rousing “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” and it was surely only the lack of a central aisle at Sadler’s Wells that stopped the full house from jumping to its feet to rock along. But the number that always stops me in my tracks is the quietly tragic “I Wanna Be Ready”, which is all about a man preparing for, and perhaps willing, the moment of his own death. The choreography basically amounts to a core workout, but Clifton Brown imbued it with such subtle feeling and technical precision that it soared.

Jacqueline Green in "Lazarus"The new work that preceded Revelations on opening night is, initially, a much harder watch. Lazarus, a two-parter by Rennie Harris that pays homage to Ailey’s life and early struggles, is a darkly impressionistic re-tread of the black history theme, minus the religious uplift. Dance fans with long memories may remember Harris as the power behind the extraordinary Rome and Jewels that blew into London from New York way back in 2001, a highly entertaining hip hop take on Romeo and Juliet. Well, Lazarus is nothing like that.

This is dark, very dark. It takes a bewildering 10 minutes to realise that what you’ve seen and heard so far on a near-black stage are impressions formed in utero by the as-yet-unborn Alvin. Scenes of mental and physical distress, pleading, prayers, snatches of what Ailey called blood memory. His was a childhood blighted by poverty and racist brutality and he suffered all his life from survivor guilt.

Thankfully Harris knows when to trip the switch marked “party”. The grief gives way to an explosion of joyous physicality: elbows jab, feet jiggle, torsos thrust, crazy shapes are thrown mid-air. Think of a competitive club night in Dalston and ramp up the dial to 11. These dancers are superlative and spirits hit the roof. A recording of Ailey speaking, not long before he died of Aids in 1989, brings us back to base. The struggle is not over yet, is the message.

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