Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Duke Ellington/Wynton Marsalis/Radiohead/WarDancing Spirit
Dancers – Constance Stamatiou, Sarah Daley-Perdomo, Khalia Campbell, Ashely Kaylynn-Green, Yannick Lebrun, Jermaine Terry, Renaldo Maurice, Chalvar Monteiro, Xavier Mack
Ronald K Brown – Choreography
Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya – Costumes

Wynton MarsalisFor Four
Dancers – Khalia Campbell, Deirdre Rogan, Renaldo Maurice, Solomon Dumas
Robert Battle – Choreography
Corin Wright – Costumes

Gustave Charpentier, Leontyne Price (soprano) recording – Unfold
Dancers – Ashley Mayeux, Jeroboam Bozeman
Robert Battle – Choreography
Jon Taylor – Costumes

Duke EllingtonThe River
Dancers – The Company
Alvin Ailey – Choreography
A. Christina Giannini – Costumes

Duke EllingtonPas de Duke
Dancers – Jacquelin Harris, Patrick Coker
Alvin Ailey – Choreography
Rouben Ter-Arutunian – Costumes

Alice Coltrane/Laura Nyro/Chuck GriffinCry
Dancer – Constance Stamatiou
Alvin Ailey – Choreography
A. Christina Giannini – Costumes

Dancers – The Company
Alvin Ailey – Choreography
Ves Harper – Costumes

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: G.J. Dowler

Reviewed: 13 September, 2023
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre

The question of how to continue, develop and progress when you lose your founder is particularly pressing for dance groups; the ensembles established by Maurice Béjart, José Limón, Martha Graham and Pina Bausch have all wrestled with it, as has Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater  (AAADT), first established in 1958 by Ailey who died in 1989 at the age of 58. They have faced the challenges with perhaps more success than some, continuing to be at the forefront of the American modern dance movement and representing the traditions, stories and dance styles of black America and the African diaspora, even if the company itself became racially integrated as early as 1963. Ailey’s choreography remains at the core of the company’s repertoire even if, under current director Robert Battle, it has opened itself up to a wider range of musical and dance styles, exemplified by the commissioning of new work from New York ‘hot name’ Kyle Abraham. As part of the company’s first post-pandemic foreign tour, AAADT has taken up a two-week residency at Sadler’s Wells, presenting four programmes whose works sometimes overlap. The ensemble’s dancers remain as they have always been since the very beginning: a highly likeable ensemble of individuals, many with strong stage personalities, who possess a range of ages, physiques, and movement dynamics. This is what lies at the heart of the interest in and engagement with their dancing.

Robert K Brown’s Dancing Spirit from 2007 is very much in the Alvin Ailey magpie approach to modern dance – fusing Cuban, Afro-modern and Latin influences to create a readable, far-from-esoteric style in which the dancers’ simple placings and groupings and their often collective movements deliver pleasure. The work is meant as tribute to Judith Jamison, the company’s first star dancer who went on to become its director after Ailey’s death. In truth, there is little of Jamison’s magnetism in a work which is, nonetheless, unfailingly satisfying, largely to the homogeneity achieved by a group of artists who unquestionably inhabit their movements.

Robert Battle came to AAADT as an outsider in that he had not first been a company dancer, but his leadership has been successful with the international reputation expanded and burnished. He is also a choreographer, although it is to be hoped that the two short works For Four and Unfold are unrepresentative of his output. The first is a manic quartet to Wynton Marsalis’ frenzied composition, and while the dancers were to be commended for their stamina, speed and personality, the movement is consciously quirky, if not zany, at times and begins to grate rather too quickly. What possessed Battle to produce Unfold, a jerky, ugly duet with flexed feet and jutting posteriors to the lush sonorities of Charpentier’s ‘Depuis le jour’ in a young Leontyne Price’s full-blown recording is anyone’s guess.  The dancers did their level best in a duo which is meant to portray first love; while the music transcends, the movement does not.

The Ailey Classics programme was a chance to see and appreciate a variety of his work. The River, an ambitious 8-part work to a commissioned symphonic score from Ellington, dates from 1970 and one can see Ailey’s synthesis of a variety of choreographic influences, from the modern dance of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham to the ballet of George Balanchine, not forgetting New York’s Broadway dance shows. Ostensibly an allegory of birth, life and death first made for American Ballet Theatre, it is unfailingly creative in its use of ensemble as well as solos and duos. The company perform with verve, not least in the jazzy, playful ‘Riba (Mainstream)’ led by the irrepressible Xavier Mack whose role evokes the scampish Joker in Cranko’s Jeu de Cartes seen in New York the previous season. Other stand-out performances were from Samantha Figgins in the ‘Giggling Rapids’ pas de deux, Deirdre Rogan like quicksilver in ‘Vortex’, all spins and speed and the monumental physical presence of James Gilmer in the closing duet ‘Twin Cities’.

Pas de Duke was first created for Judith Jamison and ballet superstar Mihail Baryshnikov in 1976 and was clearly tailor-made to their special talents. Jacqueline Harris came closer to her illustrious predecessor than her partner, but both delivered this riff on the classical ballet pas de deux with vim and delicious attitude. Cry is a long solo made for Jamison in 1971 and Constance Stamatiou brought great variety of emotions and a particular intensity to an exhausting 16-minute work which is accompanied by three contrasting songs and in which she represents all black women, their tribulations, hardships, and triumphs. 

Revelations is AAADT’s signature work, beloved of audiences for over sixty years now since its 1960 premiere. Evoking the black Baptist spiritual tradition, it runs from moments of deepest grief to those of pure joy, and never fails to raise the collective spirits. AAADT continue to perform it with sincerity and commendable freshness.

The company seems to be going through a period of transition with a number of long-serving artists contrasting with a younger generation. Technically, the women come across as stronger while some of the most exacting passages of choreography clearly challenge some of the men. But AAADT is not a ballet company, and perfection has never been their goal; what they continue to offer is the quality of artistic truthfulness and an engagement with their material which contrasts with the increasingly bland and po-faced nature of many other troupes, ballet and modern.

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