Last minute changes to the Ailey company's London season of four mixed bills had to be made because of illness or injury. The first performance of 21st Century Creations included Jamar Roberts's In a Sentimental Mood and Ronald K Brown's Dancing Spirit, along with two short works by artistic director Robert Battle already shown in previous programmes.
The evening opened with Battle's For Four, first made as a video during pandemic restrictions in 2021. It's an outburst of pent-up energy to Wynton Marsalis's jazz music in 4/4 time. A great start, with four identically dressed dancers in white T-shirts and black trousers seizing their chance to grab our attention: exuberant leaps, jive, street dance, a nod to Bob Fosse with a black trilby. A brief projection of the American flag in a state of collapse was apparently a reminder of national conditions at the time the piece was created – far from joyous.
Battle's duet, Unfold, from 2007, served as a preview for Roberts's recent two-hander, In a Sentimental Mood. Unfold, set to an aria from Charpentier's opera Louise (recorded by Leontyne Price) depicts a couple in the throes of all-consuming love. Danced by Ashley Mayeux and Jeroboam Bozeman on Friday night, they're bowled over by passion, falling and scrabbling on the floor in between ecstatic, arching embraces. The extravagant choreography is the physical expression of surrender to emotions so heady that the rapture is unlikely to last.
In a Sentimental Mood (the title of a Duke Ellington composition used by Roberts) is a dance drama about a revisited love affair that won't end well. A femme fatale (Khalia Campbell) enters, snazzily dressed in a voluminous white coat, white hat and blood-red gloves. She's recalling an ‘old love' (another Duke Ellington song), putting her gloves in her mouth as she remembers his kisses. A scrim lifts to reveal a room behind her, with a man (James Gilmer) awaiting her arrival. It's a sombre salon with a candelabra, leather chair, vase of flowers and a hat stand, on which she hangs her coat and hat.
She's all in black, in mourning for the reciprocal, overwhelming love displayed in Unfold. Her encounters with the man are seen through her eyes, her memory. She is entranced, then angry, then impassive. We don't know what has gone wrong (she points an accusing finger in the air and throws down the flowers from the vase) as he rages, rolls and twitches in his solos. He's an enigma. She flings her coat over him on the floor like a shroud: does she want to kill him? They appear reconciled in a final duet, their lifts and holds resembling a balletic pas de deux. She breaks away to pick up the flowers as he contorts himself in a spotlit solo. She puts on her coat, hat and the red gloves, and walks off, spurning his offer of a single rose.
It's a film noir account of a grown-up affair: the woman sitting in front of me felt she had to hide her young daughter's eyes. Jamar Roberts, a former dancer with the company for 20 years, has paid homage to Ailey by using Ellington's music, which Ailey loved, and by telling a compelling story through dance. Not for children, though.
Ronald K Brown's Dancing Spirit, which ended the programme, is a tribute to Judith Jamison, who celebrated her 80th birthday in May. She first joined the company in 1965 and took over from Ailey as his designated successor in 1989 for the next 21 years. Brown revised his 2009 creation this year, adapting it for present members of the company. On Friday, Hannah Alissa Richardson danced the leading role as Jamison, with Soloman Dumas heading the rest of the cast in diagonal processions across the stage. The music compilation included Ellington, Marsalis, Radiohead and a Californian band, War.
The regal opening procession had the senior couple disappear into the wings as a new generation took over. Contemporary dance moves with fluent use of the arms and torso, the women's skirts flaring around their legs, then gave way to more earthy West African pulsing and Cuban hip swaying. After another, livelier procession exited the stage, Richardson remained for a solo with echoes of Jamison's signature solo, Cry, made for her by Ailey 50 years ago. It employs long, sweeping lines, exultant swirls of the skirt, a dignified upright posture contrasted with high extensions and swift footwork.
When the others returned for communal rejoicing, the pace built towards the finale before the cast calmly lined up to face the audience, one arm raised in a salute as the curtain fell. Dancing Spirit harks back to the Ailey company's origins as a proud African-American modern dance ensemble with its own fusion of vernacular styles. For a change, this mixed bill of 21st-century works made for the company ended, perfectly happily, without Ailey's celebrated Revelations, created in 1960 and still in demand whenever and wherever the company performs.
Ailey 2, the junior company, will be touring Revelations and other, newer works, around the UK from 23 September to 28 October 2023.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.