THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Founded in 1958 and still wowing audiences nearly 60 years later, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has long ago attained the status of national treasure in the US. Moving on from Ailey's death in 1989 was no mean feat but first Judith Jamieson and now Robert Battle have taken the company in exciting new directions, cleverly balancing reverence for their roots with confidently embracing new work from, among others, the English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
A key part of this success is the quality of the dancers who remain simply luminous in their artistry, whether they're in strongly classical works or in more hip-hop or funk infused pieces. They bring old fashioned showmanship to the often austere world of modern dance and audiences adore them for it.
Back in the UK for a national tour after a gap of 5 years their London dates encompassed ten different works across four programmes and these can be seen in various permutations around the country.
Programme C brought us Lift (2013) by the Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton all sensuously sculpted lighting and percussive beats, playing to the company's strengths as an ensemble and demonstrating their ability to fuse classicism with funk.
A resounding foghorn-like din pinned us to our seats and immersed us in Awakening (2015), the new piece from the company's artistic director Robert Battle. Stark white-clad figures sought frenzied escape to the sounds of John Mackey's modernist score, which had more than an echo of Stravinsky about it.
Linda Celeste Sims was exquisitely defiant in Cry (1971), which was Ailey's own piece for a solo female, dedicated to "all black women everywhere, especially our mothers". Set to the music of John Coltrane, Laura Nyro and the Voices of East Harlem, it was gloriously of its time, ending as an explosion of sheer dance joy.
Completing the evening and indeed completing every evening's performance by the company was Ailey's signature piece Revelations (1960). Every time I see it I wonder if it will have aged, yet it never disappoints. It is also of its time, you can see the strong Martha Graham influence, but it also transcends time and what is moving is how they present it each time as if it's an offertory procession in a church, always heartfelt, never jaded. Inspired by Ailey's own upbringing in the South and with a heart-stopping gospel score it is an expression of sorrow, of longing, of hope and of faith in redemption. The spirituals, which all would have been originally sung by slaves, cut through like a knife.
But there is joy amidst the sorrow. A woman rushes round bearing a large gaily trimmed parasol and you connect to that feeling of when you were a kid and a big room was something to race through with wild abandon. It is an elemental connection with joy and it transforms what could have been merely an artful evocation of a Baptist ritual in the Deep South into something everyone can get. All the classically trained perfection of this company would be for nought without Ailey's ability to connect like this.
After London they're in Plymouth, Birmingham, Bradford, Nottingham, Cardiff, Salford, Southampton, Canterbury and Edinburgh. The programmes are very varied and include Paul Taylor's hymn to the tango, Piazzola Caldera. Not to be missed.