DANCE / Skimming the surface: Judith Mackrell on Alvin Ailey at the Coliseum and the Royal Ballet at the ROH
Friday 31 July 1992
The River has been hailed as one of Ailey's major creations. Made in 1970 to a specially commissioned 'jazz symphony' by Duke Ellington and first performed by American Ballet Theatre, it has the slightly portentous air of aiming at being a big classic number. The movement is flavoured with a more classical style than much of Ailey's work, there's also a clearer sense of structure than in some of his episodic pieces. But there's no sense of Ailey developing a choreographic voice here, or stretching himself as a crafter of dance. The pleasures in the piece are familiar ones, a male quartet which is all revved-up turns and breakneck jumps, lines of bodies deftly snaking their hips. The ballet quotes (beats, ronds de jambes) seem like self-conscious additions to the style which are often phrased with musical gaucheness and which were, still worse, beyond many of the dancers' technical capabilities. Ragged feet, shaky balances and blurred rhythms suddenly reduce this company to vulnerable amateurs.
THE SENSE that you're not quite seeing the work, that the choreography must have looked better on its original cast, also haunts Deborah Manning's performance of Ailey's solo Cry (1971). This was first made for Judith Jamison, long-time star of the company and now its artistic director. With her extraordinary height and her big emotional embrace of the audience, you can imagine that she would have made this piece large enough to bear the burden of Ailey's dedication ('For all black women everywhere - especially our mothers'). In Manning's performance you saw instead characteristically bitty Ailey dance set to three seemingly arbitrarily juxtaposed pieces of music, where emotional and physical highs come and go without building into a solid and purposeful whole.
The highs - which were well danced by Manning - came in the extraordinary range of undulating movements which Ailey has created for torso and arms, from delicate, questioning flutters of the ribcage to great sobbing spasms of the spine; also the amazing contrast of a body bowed under some unspecified load, then stretched out on the impulse of a liberating cry. Much of the rest of the movement, though, looked like choreographic filler - and lazily sentimental filler at that.
Ailey is at his flabbiest, however, in the programme's opening piece, Blues Suite (1958). This is peopled with the tarts and toughs that so insistently frequent the company's repertoire and is full of gratingly sexual posturing and minimally sketchy dance. It may be, at the time of composition, that such blatant and unguilty licentiousness appeared liberating. It may also be that the heavy- handed black stereotyping was not considered offensive. Today, though, a choreographer would be barracked off the stage for portraying such eye-rolling, shoulder- shimmying black whores and such jauntily hip-wagging black dudes.
THE PLOT of Petipa's 1877 ballet La Bayadere is burdened with its own share of cliches although the mix of sensuality and anger underlying the injured innocence of its heroine Nikiya, allows for a certain subtlety of interpretation. Every time I watch Sylvie Guillem dance this (and many other roles), however, I'm perplexed by the sameness of her performance. Technically she's exquisite and incredible. The witchy speed of her turns in Act 2, for instance, was hair-raising on Wednesday night, as was the serene confidence of her balances. Yet even though Guillem never neglects dramatic detail, it's always still Guillem that you're watching. She rarely reveals new things in a role - a sharp new nuance of character, a metaphoric richness in the movement, a fresh interpretation of the music. And the contrast with Nicola Roberts' small solo in Act 2 - far less perfectly danced but crammed with variations of texture and dynamic - was telling.
Guillem was partnered on Wednesday by Zoltan Solymosi who was not only making his debut as Solor but also establishing himself as a desirable addition to the Royal's roster of men. He's no great actor yet - his Solor has two basic modes, either happily in love with Nikiya or glumly intimidated by her rival Gamzatti - but he's handsomely passionate about both and his dancing is fuelled by a headlong energy that lends a heartwarming ardour to whatever character he's playing.
The Alvin Ailey Company is at the Coliseum, London WC2, tonight and tomorrow (box office: 071-836 3161). The Royal Ballet summer season at Covent Garden ends on 8 August (071-240 1066).
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Casual Vacancy finale review: Superb cast, luscious cinematography - shame about the confused ending
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut