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DANCE / Skimming the surface: Judith Mackrell on Alvin Ailey at the Coliseum and the Royal Ballet at the ROH

AT THE Alvin Ailey Company's second programme the audience again lets rip with noisy whoops of approval - stirred up by the dancers' gregarious style of presentation and by the very un- British gutsiness of their dancing. It is easy to see why this company appeals, short-circuiting as it does the image of rarefied remoteness that some people attach to dance. Yet apart from a closing work, Revelations (also shown in Programme 1), Tuesday evening showed that the late Ailey was a choreographer of very little substance and that however feisty and sassy the company may (sometimes tiresomely) be, it also has some difficulty coping with his material.

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).

(Photograph omitted)