DANCE / Physical kicks, spiritual highs: Judith Mackrell reviews Alvin Ailey at the Coliseum. Plus Romeo and Juliet

IT'S 17 years since the Alvin Ailey company last appeared in London, and while much of the modern dance world has, during this time, withdrawn into ironic or alienated reticence, this company brings a reminder that the form can be brash, bawdy and big. (There's a temptation to add bad - except that's hardly a quality exclusive to the Ailey company.)

The pure Ailey experience - the flamboyant physical high for which the company is famous - actually gets delivered in just one piece during their first programme, Ailey's own 1960 number Revelations. Set to a sequence of black spirituals, the dance is moving less for its communication of religious experience (the movement actually short-changes some of the music's spiritual charge), than for a sense of physical exhilaration that approaches the sacred. It's also a piece that puts black tradition successfully on to a big stage, for Ailey has here created his most effective alliance between classic modern dance and certain details and rhythms in black movement.

There's a fraught power of emotion in the bowed, shaking head of the supplicant, a plump vernacular robustness in the way a whole group of women shake their butts and wave their fans in a surge of collective religious optimism. And as the dancing barrels along on the pulse of the music, its energy is frequently irresistible - the manic spins and jumps to 'Sinner Man', the rippling walks to 'Wading In The Water', the proud strutting chorus that brings the work to its crowd-storming conclusion.

Despite its 30-odd years, this piece doesn't fade. There's hardly a shrug or extraneous movement in it and the dancers, for all their amazing showbizzy confidence, manage to sustain a spontaneously joyous edge. Watching Donald McKayle's District Storyville (1962), however, you feel caught in a depressing time-warp. The piece is set in a whorehouse in 1917 and in celebrating the early raunchy days of jazz it positively blushes with its own daring. Tarts strut their stuff, punters fondle and gloat and everyone does a lot of pumping, grinding, shimmying jazz dance to a score featuring numbers from Ellington, Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton.

The company is expertly sassy and milk the audience for conniving lustful grins, but the choreography itself is below-standard Broadway fare. McKayle has nothing to add to the well-worn cliches of the genre and each number follows arbitrarily after the next without establishing either tension or shape. You feel as if you are watching dance routines extracted from some absent musical - the whole threadbare affair calling out for the extra flesh of dialogue and song.

In Donald Byrd's Dance at the Gym (1991) a few contemporary changes are rung around the same mating theme. The movement comes in cool lines with some sharp robotic rhythms. The sex is meaner and hungrier, the participants' narcissism more overt. The stereotypes remain the same, though - competitive macho men, calculating women - only here they're unrelieved by any boisterousness or good humour. It's a piece not only nasty but interminable. As Mio Morales' music bleeps and chugs purposelessly onwards, the dancers meet for yet another bout of antagonistic sexual display. Byrd's choreography looks bad on the company. Best at juicy propulsive movement, these dancers don't have the focus and precision of line, the neurotic edge to bring off this kind of alienated urban choreography.

In contrast to the souped-up sex of Byrd and McKayle, Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House seems like a fairytale of innocent first love, its passions erotic but unselfconscious, its ecstasies straightforward rather than perverse. On Tuesday, Irek Mukhamedov made his debut as Romeo, paired (in what has now become an established partnership) with Viviana Durante. The performance held few surprises but was mostly enthralling for all that.

Mukhamedov played Romeo as a charming naive, incapable of measuring or stinting his emotion when he falls in love. Durante's Juliet is even greedier in her ardour - having seen and fallen for Romeo she bourrees round the stage in a blissful daze from which she publicly and almost comically has to shake herself. There are countless details of gesture and expression which these two have worked into the roles to make them their own. But what stands out is the total way in which they complement each other. Durante's technique has become both finer and more sumptuous yet she draws an extra substance from Mukhamedov's galvanising dramatic presence. Mukhamedov in turn has moments where both age, and a different training, tell in his movement. Yet his dancing and acting are so much of a piece and the detail of both so eloquently thought through that you hardly judge what he does as a performance - merely the motions of a man heroically and a little foolishly in love.

The Alvin Ailey company continues at the Coliseum (071 836 3161). The Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet continues at the Royal Opera House (071:240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

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