Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London

Good news from down Mississippi way
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The Independent Culture

The hugely popular Alvin Ailey company seems to be jinxed on its UK visits. Three years ago it postponed due to 9/11. Now its customary exuberance has been shadowed by another history-making crisis back home. I cannot be alone in wondering how an institution claiming to represent the African-American experience feels about beaming its upbeat message to the world just now. It only needed a word before curtain-up, a minute's silence for New Orleans, to set the picture straight. As it was, Ailey's 45-year-old Revelations - the great Southern States shout of affirmation of hope and faith that will sign off every performance on the coming tour - left a distinctly odd taste on opening night.

Nevertheless the company makes a dazzling impression with two generous programmes. It's decided, clearly, not to be a shrine to its founder's memory. Almost all the material is new or recent and taps into the popular idiom in a way Ailey would have approved, with dances set to recorded music by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, and a host of older black pop icons. Bonus points, too, for the company's canny decision to bring its own fabulous sound system.

Hard to say which is the better of the two evenings. The first opens luminously with a neo-classical solo for company star Clifton Brown set to Wonder's "If It's Magic", but its choreographer Judith Jamison then hands the baton to hip hop guru Rennie Harris and disco wallah Robert Battle and the piece loses focus. Vespers, by the gloriously named Ulysses Dove, is a more tightly structured sextet for the women that begins and ends in the guise of a sober prayer meeting. In between, however, it erupts in a game of frantic musical chairs during which each worshipper gives vent to the wildest voodoo impulse, full-body delirium tremens and skirt rucked up to her ears. Control is restored in Hans Van Manen's Solo, three men taking turns to bowl through its fiendish reams of steps with a nonchalance that only supreme technical mastery allows. The piece might look quite different on the more classical bodies of, say, Dutch National Ballet - but almost certainly not better.

In the second programme it's even harder to pick a highlight. David Parsons's Shining Star plants tongue in cheek to show off the dancers' Eighties' disco prowess. The guys flap the tails of absurd white wool overcoats like hyperactive gangsters, the women are slippery as fish, flicking midriff muscles most mortals don't possess. Personal gorgeousness scores high in this company, and Jamison's new piece, Reminiscin', aims to give everyone their moment of glory in a string of duets set to ballads sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall and others. Lovely, but too long. The beauty of Caught, by David Parsons, is its brevity. A single idea - using strobe lighting on its slowest setting to catch a soloist repeatedly mid-flight - is exploited simply and brilliantly. You believe a man can fly.

But as ever it's Ailey that raises the roof. Revelations is not merely his personal greatest hit, it's become an icon of black history with its clear, vibrant outlines defining the ecstasy of Southern Baptist faith. For me, though, the accidental ironies of the rollicking "Didn't the Lord deliver Daniel?" and "Wade in the Water" were too much too bear.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Birmingham Hippodrome, (0870 730 1234) Tues & Wed; Bradford Alhambra (01274 432000) Fri & Sat and touring

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