DANCE / Sinners create heaven: Programme Two - London Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
AFTER 17 years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back in Britain, and the way we see modern dance will never be the same again. We are used to the cerebral, contained solemnity of the home-grown form. The Alvin Ailey style is exuberant, funky, expansive, athletic and exquisitely graceful. The dancers would look as comfortable limbering up next to Linford Christie in Barcelona as in a pas de deux with Sylvie Guillem at the Royal Opera House. The blend of discipline, abandonment, humour and elegance is thrilling. Are these people having fun or what?

At the end of two and a half hours, the audience would not let its new friends go. The company, beaming, dizzy with the pleasure of success, obliged with an encore. A rare event, indeed.

Ailey, who died in 1989, drew on American black culture for inspiration. The show starts on a high with 'Storyville', by Donald McKayle, Broadway's first black choreographer, set in the red-light district of New Orleans to the sound of Dixie. A jazzy funeral procession eases on stage, but it's not long before the boo-hooing women in black chiffon veils erupt into wild laughter. The dance is risque, the sequinned gowns provocative. Whores shimmy, the Pensacola kid mimes Ellington on trumpet, the Countess and her girls give the come-on and the come-off-it mate.

The newest piece, 'Dance at the Gym' (1991), choreographed by Donald Byrd, is dance at the cutting edge, jagged and impressionistic. Four women, four men, sexy in low-cut, spray-on black Lycra, arrive at the gloomy gym, more deserted warehouse than the venue for a Jane Fonda workout, a bleak gangland for sexual politicking. This is war, a fierce and dramatic business in the dark with industrial music pounding in the ears. The girls thrust their legs, spiral their hips, tempt, tease. The boys match up with their own brand of nonchalance. Who will give way first? Eventually, in the orangey shadows, the arch-enemies embrace, even fondle.

Ailey's signature piece, 'Revelations' (1960), is set to gospel music and divided into three sections, which provide startling mood changes. Trouble brews in the first section, brown and haunting, urging deliverance. The white section speaks of purification and cleansing, with dancers languid in flowing dresses, twirling umbrellas against a marine sky. The yellow section, set to 'Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham', lifts the mood with wide, spinning celebrations and even an audience singalong.

This section begins with three men taking turns to burst on stage, stabbing, bare-chested, back and forth against a dappled red backdrop, leaping, jumping, gliding, rolling. The space has no limits, the body no limitations. Each is a 'Sinner Man'; each achieves dance to die for. You will seldom see anything like it.

Programme Two, London Coliseum (071-836 3161), tomorrow to Sat.

Sue Gaisford is unwell.