Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Ailey Classics at Sadler’s Wells
There are rare performances that enrapture an audience in two ways. The first invites them entirely into the narrative, until the humanity emanating from the stage is so generous that the distinction between artist and viewer blurs hazily. The second is to transport, meticulously guiding viewers to foreign lands and unfamiliar feelings, until the stage and auditorium are hovering at the edge of a precipice, breath held and the drop below fizzing with artistic possibility.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in their first visit to London since 2019, accomplish both with irresistible verve.
The internationally renowned company gave its first performance in 1958 New York, with pioneering founder and choreographer Alvin Aliley leading young Black modern dancers to unite people of all backgrounds through the “beauty and humanity of the African-American heritage”. Today, the company strives to continue Ailey’s mission, their run at Sadlers Wells championing new choreographers alongside core works in three separate programmes: Modern Masters, 21st Century Creations and Ailey Classics. Tonight is the first performance of Ailey Classics, in which four iconic pieces are given fresh audiences.
A swelling french horn starts Duke Ellington’s sweeping score and signifies the dive into The River. It is the most stylistically eclectic work of the evening, blending classical ballet, jazz and modern dance in a tasting menu of short choreographies, united by a water theme as a metaphor for the journey of life. Unfurling arms articulate and the dancers weave seamlessly between stately solo shapes, sensual duets and mesmeric unison passages. Highlights are the indomitable athleticism of the men’s jetés and turns in Falls, and Xavier Mack’s show-stealing Riba, in which he flirts outrageously with the audience in a joyously camp contrast to the uniform lines formed by the rest of the troupe. Every movement is simultaneously exaggerated and effortless, his swinging hips and schoolboy grin an embodiment of Ellington’s sparking score.
Pas de Duke continues on a jazzy theme, with a skilful, sass-infused battle between Jacquelin Harris and Patrick Coker. Their matching sparkling jackets and flared trousers – Harris in black, Coker in white – ooze a sexiness that defies the gender roles of a classic pas de deux, in which the man supports the woman’s graceful lines. The audience tinkles with laughter as the curtains fall and there is a “whoop!” from backstage, the dancers relishing in the thrill of adrenaline at a midway point in the programme.
A tone shift for Cry, which Ailey wrote as a birthday present to his mother, dedicating it to “all Black women everywhere – especially our mothers”. Constance Stamatiou’s richly expressive movement yearns and shimmers, guiding a story through vulnerability and strength, from struggle to salvation. Ailey’s use of costume shines, as Stamatiou whirls in a flamenco-esque white dress, the movement of the skirt intrinsically intertwined with her evocative gestures.
Finally, it is Revelations. Choreographed in 1960 to a suite of traditional spirituals, the company’s signature work is performed at the end of almost every show. It is a ritual of thanks to the past and portrays a soulful journey of human perseverance that remains strikingly relevant. The performance tonight feels fresher than ever, concluding in a celebratory encore, in which a standing audience claps along to improvised solos from members of the troupe, their movements rich with influence from global dance styles: Africa, Latin-America, Western classical ballet…
This is a performance rooted in Black artistic history, with dazzling athleticism and a burning expressive core. Everyone should see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at least once.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are performing various programmes at Sadler’s Wells from 5th until 16th September 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.