Alvin Ailey the man or Alvin Ailey the company do not need any introduction. Hot off the back of performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, the troupe perform four (-ish) programmes at Sadler's Wells from 5-16 September to celebrate 65 years of the company.
I was in attendance for the opening night of the first programme: Contemporary Voices. Due to company illness, the second bill (Modern Masters) meant that the repertoire repeated… so I left that one alone.
It's been of interest to research Ailey before the Wells season. No one can be in denial of his vast achievements, most keenly what he's done for “Black artists to express their experiences and heritage” since the inception of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in 1969 (later named The Ailey School in 1999).
His work was stimulated by his upbringing, specifically “the South, blues, spirituality, and gospel”, and the movement language can be seen to incorporate “theater, modern dance, ballet, and jazz with Black vernacular”.
Contemporary Voices includes work by Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle (the current Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2011) and Ailey's Revelations.
Opening the evening is Are You in Your Feelings? (2022) by Abraham and it's a super strong start. He is a much-lauded, present-day dancemaker, and this work amplifies why. The piece revolves around a mixtape of “soul, hip-hop, and R&B”, and Abraham's innate understanding of music, both rhythmically and emotionally, is at the forefront of the creativity. Through the soundtrack, he develops an idiosyncratic, hybrid movement language that ranges from street-style swagger to extraordinarily refined, codified dance steps. The richness of the choreography, with sensitively interwoven societal relationships, allows the Ailey dancers to shine, and they take all that Abraham offers and go even further, displaying snapshots of urban camp and passages of exquisite ballet technique. The simple colour blocking of Karen Young's costuming feels fresh and accessible, and the stylish, minimal lighting by Dan Scully is absolutely pivotal to the work's overall success. In short: a very subtle, yet relevant 2022, “Ailey” experience via Abraham.
After the first interval are two works by Robert Battle: For Four (2021) and Unfold (2007). Both are short, 8 and 5 minutes respectively, so it's more amuse-bouche than main course.
For Four is a speeding (jazz) train of a piece from start to finish, and the cast of four absolutely thrashes the hell out of the cool cat vibe choreography to Wynton Marsalis' manic, relentless score. However, in conjunction, it all feels a tad anxiety-inducing, with Battle even suggesting a sense of unease embedded in the movement itself. But kudos to him regardless, as I've never seen both Voguing and the Trepak in the same piece before, let alone the same phrase. Original indeed.
Unfold takes on the same, high drama, operatic approach as the music choice: Gustave Charpentier's ‘Depuis Le Jour' from Louise (sung by Leontyne Price). Battle definitely doesn't do things by halves, as Unfold is unashamedly melodramatic and deconstructed. The couple seems in turmoil throughout and communicates this via disjointed, floor-based iterations of the recovery position, and some of the deepest, most elongated backbends I've ever seen (we see you Ashley Mayeux!). What to make of it all? I'm unsure, but the conviction can't be questioned, though a 13-minute second part doesn't feel like intelligent programming!
Closing the evening is Ailey's 63-year-old work Revelations (1960), and here are some rather impressive stats: “Revelations has been seen in 71 countries and by more than 25 million people, with audience members ranging from Oprah to Obama” to Paluch.
I was a Revelations virgin, and the reality isn't a disappointment… it's a masterclass in relevant choreography, making it hard to believe the piece was created in 1960! Though perhaps a lot of this disbelief is down to the enlivened execution of the 2023 Ailey dancers, but equally they couldn't achieve this level of conviction if they didn't believe in what they were doing. It's difficult to analyse spirituality, as it's inevitably an individual experience, but the religious music and evocative movement language usher the observer on a journey of both environment and mysticism whether they like it or not.
What Ailey does with the overall choreography is unparalleled though, with original group work, poignant duets and possessed solos, he takes us everywhere. If you're familiar with the modern dance lexicon, you'll take great satisfaction in seeing so much fundamental movement included: curve, tilt, spiral, contraction, flexed bare feet, and deep plié in second position… it's wholesome and hugely fulfilling to witness.
The cast makes the experience even more worthwhile through their commitment and vigorous embodiment of the work, and this is the case for the duration of the evening. The standard is extremely high, but even with this in mind one has to mention Ashley Kaylynn Green (in the Abraham and Ailey) and Vernand J Gilimore (for his profound Revelations solo).
Modern Masters (the unlucky second programme) was supposed to include works by Twyla Tharp, Ronald K. Brown and Ailey's Revelations once more. It was the Tharp that didn't happen due to illness, and it was the Tharp I was eager to see. This predicament highlights another programming issue – the fact it couldn't go ahead suggests there's only one available cast. Risky business, and the risk won.
Regardless, the performance I did attend proved how exciting it is to see a modern dance company offering work that is primarily about dance, whilst also acknowledging the need for modernity with a constant nod to legacy. Others should take note, as less style over substance is currently needed, for when the balance of components is correct, a movement-focused formula is unbeatable.
Writing this hasn't been a straightforward process though, as I've struggled with the bigger notion of being a white man reviewing the work of black artists. Can I truly critique the “Black vernacular” so inherent in the work? Or am I just a gawking window shopper? I take some solace from the fact Ailey preferred to be known as a choreographer as opposed to a “Black choreographer”, but not a lot.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was formerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011, has been a freelance writer since 2010 and currently works in the Law Sector.