DANCE / History looks a little old

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS perhaps too much to expect the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to maintain in its second programme the dazzling success achieved in its first at the London Coliseum. The company did not travel smoothly into the second week, and its shortcomings, as well as gaps in the repertoire, were exposed.

The first week was enormous fun with the Ailey masterpiece, 'Revelations', and two energetic pieces by Donald McKayle and Donald Byrd. But the second programme contained four Ailey- only pieces, including one created in 1958, which lent an air of the retrospective so that the repertoire seemed more of a salute to the choreographer, who died in 1989, than an attempt to push forward the frontiers of dance.

The backward-looking nature of the programme was most evident in 'Blues Suite', set in the music halls of the racially segregated South. It no doubt stunned audiences with its evocation of black anger and despair when first performed in 1958, but now the edges have curled. The love-barter between the tarts, like gumdrops in Gatsby-style orange, lime and lilac dresses, and their macho suitors looked dated, and the stereotypes would never have got past the politically correct lobby.

'Cry', a solo dedicated to women and created as a vehicle for the statuesque Judith Jamison - now the company's artistic director - was danced by the sleek Renee Robinson, vulnerable and lonely in slavery but powerful later in a robust freedom dance that could have drawn everyone out into the streets to celebrate.

Ailey weaves several tableaux into one piece so each work contains a blend of moods. The apogee of this technique is 'Revelations', where a feeling is captured by different colours - brown, white and yellow. 'The River', an expressionistic piece with a specially composed score by Duke Ellington, represents a departure. This time Ailey blends the classical and modern styles, a remarkably ambitious idea to thrust upon a modern dance company.

It almost succeeded - it was certainly fascinating - but on stage it came across as experimental. The trouble with the experiment was the faltering feet in the classical parts, which nearly blew up the whole laboratory. The conjunction of modern and classical was not enhanced by the Ellington score, which owed more to Mantovani than Tchaikovsky. But Ailey is a man who keeps his humour, and the jazzy send- up of the four cygnets in Swan Lake and the row of men doing high-kicks as if in A Chorus Line were funny and cheeky.

The company was more sure of its ground in 'Revelations', which ended both programmes to widespread acclaim. Set to gospel music as a journey from sorrow to redemption, it was flawless in conception and execution.