Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Celebrate African-American Dance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre – Mixed Bill: Dancers of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 7.9.2016. (JPr)

Open Door Choreography: Ronald K. Brown Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik nyc 212-362-7778
AAADT perform Ronald K Brown’s Open Door (c) Paul Kolnik

Programme B

Open Door

Choreography – Ronald K Brown
Associate Choreographer – Arcell Cabuag
Music – Luis Demetrio, Arturo O’Farrill & Tito Puente
Costumes – Keiko Voltaire
Lighting – Al Crawford

Piazzolla Caldera

Choreography – Paul Taylor (restaged by Richard Chen See)
Music – Astor Piazzolla & Jerzy Peterburshsky
Set, Décor, and Costumes by Santo Loquasto
Lighting – Jennifer Tipton


Choreography – Alvin Ailey

Music – Traditional
Décor and Costumes – Ves Harper (‘Rocka My Soul’ redesigned by Barbara Forbes)
Lighting – Nicola Cernovitch

There is nothing I can add to introduce the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre for those who know all about them. However, for any other first timers like me, I will repeat a few words about the Company from the programme about how it ‘grew from a now-fabled performance in March 1958 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed forever the perception of American dance … In 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Company as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world” that celebrates the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage … Before his untimely death in 1989, Mr Ailey named Judith Jameson as his successor, and over the next 21 years she brought the Company to unprecedented success. Ms Jameson, in turn, personally selected Robert Battle to succeed her in 2011, and The New York Times declared he “has injected the company with new life.” ’

Ronald K Brown’s Open Door is the newest of the three works in the second of three programmes presented at the Sadler’s Wells on their current tour and was premiered last year. It features Linda Celeste Sims and guest artist Matthew Rushing, who is also AAADT’s rehearsal director, and when they entered and appeared to be putting on or taking off invisible socks I immediately switched off expecting any genuine narrative in what I was seeing. All three pieces were steeped in ‘the African-American cultural experience’ yet this mixed bill worked best for me – and I hope it is not heresy to suggest this – as a dance extravaganza such as Burn the Floor (which returns to London’s The Peacock soon) or something like the group dances on TV’s Strictly Come Dancing which can have you tapping your feet or clapping your hands. I must digress to add what a pleasure it was to see such a diverse – in very many ways – audience creating a buzz of expectation before the curtain went up and evidently enjoying themselves immensely throughout the evening.

Open Door involves five couples and seemed to explore how traditional African dance evolved into the Brazilian samba. It may have got there via Cuba for it was Brown’s travels there that has influenced Open Door. Solos are interspersed with high-energy rhythmic ensembles for the men and the women in their billowing skirts. Throughout the rotating hips and shuffling feet to the beat of the music – with hands held in front as if holding an invisible spear and shield – was a constant reminder of Africa. The undulating torsos and restless arms of all concerned created a propulsive carnival or nightclub atmosphere for the conclusion to Open Door. There were some vibrant projections at the back of the stage from Al Crawford including a very atmospheric sunset and there was an equally colourful palette for Keiko Voltaire’s costumes. This was all enthusiastically danced by all concerned with the two female leads Linda Celeste Sims and Belen Pereyra particularly catching the eye for their obvious joy in dancing and effortless rhythmical grace. As also happened later in the programme the choice of music – here percussion-heavy but very spirited (recorded) instrumentals from Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – tended to overwhelm the choreography a shade.

After the samba Paul Taylor’s 1997 Piazzolla Caldera (first danced by AAADT in 2015) paid homage to the tango. The idiomatic music – recorded again – was by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky. The work begins with the macho posturing and sexual tension of the women on one side of the stage and men on the other in what is supposed to represent – with some low hanging lights – a seedy bar possibly in downtown Buenos Aires, since there is much Argentine tango on show throughout. The tango is the dance of passionate love and Taylor might have been trying to explore aspects of this in some way; there was a surfeit of sultriness on show but little red-hot passion. There was also loneliness and thwarted desire: a woman (Linda Celeste Sims) is seeking love and never finds it in a series of duets or trios and at one point is rejected and possibly abused by three male dancers. There is a drunk same-sex couple (Daniel Harder and Michael Francis McBride) who balance and sink to the floor under each other’s weight in a combative – yet romantically charged – encounter. In the finale, groups of dancers – and eventually Ms Sims – collapse to the floor their ardour burnt out. The women certainly looked wonderful in Santo Loquasto’s flowered dresses, all wearing character shoes with heels and stockings; the men had trousers and open vests. Once again the marvellous music created its own atmosphere but overall the tango – as we always hear in Strictly – requires a heightened response from dancers to the music and there was little sensuality and hot-bloodedness on show and so Piazzolla Caldera lacked real emotional expression and physical excitement. We get to enjoy the tango purely as a dance but never get to peer into its soul.

Every programme AAADT has brought to Sadler’s Wells ends with their signature work Revelations created in 1960 by Alvin Ailey himself. Towards the end the dancers were costumed to look as if they were coming from – or on their way to – a revival meeting of American Baptists sometime in the distant past. Emotionally charged traditional songs amongst others declare ‘I Been ‘Buked’, ‘Fix Me Jesus’, ‘Wade in the Water’ and ‘I Wanna Be Ready’. We see a ‘congregation’ beginning in sorrow and mourning; being absolved of their sins during a ceremonial baptism in a river of blue ribbons; and it all ends after a men’s trio to ‘Sinner Man’ – which is redolent of guilt, desperation and full of raw power – with an ecstatic recreation of a gospel church service with the women in bright yellow and fluttering fans. There was an opportunity during ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham’ for the audience to join in with some clapping but London audiences are reserved and not used to this at Sadler’s Wells, so they didn’t initially. Seeing this for the first time, I suspect the Company still does Ailey’s Revelations – with its insight into the African-American experience and intricate choreography – proud. However, performed night after night it might now lack some of the heartfelt passion of the spirituals and songs they were performing to.

Jim Pritchard

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