At a time when only the most worrying news seems to be emerging from the USA, it's wonderful to be reminded of the good that can come from that country as well. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) is probably America's leading repertory modern dance company, performing not just works by its founder, Alvin Ailey, but by a host of other leading choreographers. As a force for everything great about the USA it was marvellous to see AAADT in London again for a two-week season at Sadler's Wells. The company is tremendously committed to everything it performs, dancing with an inspirational sense of dignity, joy and accomplishment that I sometimes find lacking in other ensembles, and this was especially true of the Ailey Classics programme it presented on 7th September. Consisting of four works by Ailey himself – three of which I had never seen before – it was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the company's past, as well as observe how much of the choreography can be interpreted as a commentary on contemporary events.
The River, danced to a symphonic score by Duke Ellington, was originally performed by American Ballet Theatre in 1970 and entered AAADT's repertoire in 1981. For a leading figure in the American modern dance movement, Ailey's choreography is surprisingly classical in style – it was easy to work out which sections were originally danced en pointe – with moments reminiscent of dances by George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan (at one point there is even a little spoof of the “Cygnets” dance from Swan Lake), but it also draws deeply on the movement styles of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. The dancing focusses as much on classical line (especially in the alignment of arms, legs and torso) as it does on cheerful humour or the sexuality seen in the several pas de deux, and AAADT delivers the choreography with sassiness in the more virtuoso sections. Samantha Figgins and Renaldo Maurice brought eroticism to the “Giggling Rapids” duet, Deidre Rogan turned and turned and turned in her “Vortex” solo, Xavier Mack supplied cheeky fun to the “Riba” ensemble, and Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer were riveting in “Twin Cities” – she for her glorious, voluptuous movement quality; he for his incredible adagio control as well as his impressive musculature.
The next two pieces could be seen as Ailey's tribute to one of his greatest dancers, Judith Jamison, a superb performer who later directed AAADT after Ailey's death. Pas de Duke, danced once again to music by Duke Ellington, was created for Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976, and must have been a brilliant showcase for both artists. Their dancing remains ingrained in the choreography, but my goodness, what fun Harris and Patrick Coker made of it all, performing with such easy insouciance and panache that they lit up the stage.
Cry, made on Jamison in 1971, was Ailey's tribute to his mother on her birthday, as well as to “all Black women everywhere – especially our mothers.” Performed by Constance Stamatiou, the solo, danced to music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro and Chuck Griffin, raises so many feelings and expressions – of motherhood, of faith, of service, of female and Black oppression, of joy, of dignity, of courage, of hope – that it becomes not only a metaphor for times past, but – in light of the Black Lives Matter movement – what it means to be a Black woman today. Stamatiou gave Cry a committed, compelling, poised performance.
As with nearly every programme presented by AAADT, the evening closed with Ailey's Revelations. Created in 1960, Revelations probably wins the award for Most Performed Dance Work Ever, but it still has an impact, its evocation of religious faith (the dancers are often seen with their arms and hands upraised), and of humility, civility, grace and dignity under oppression make a powerful statement. The company are fantastic, but if I had to single out one artist, it would be Ashley Kaylynn Green for the quiet, passionate intensity of her dancing.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.