Alvin Ailey, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

Dancers in gold shorts or tunics charge on to the stage, turn and dive into each other's arms. Partnering involves mid-air wrestles, with overhead changes of direction. Twyla Tharp's The Golden Section is outside the usual style of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. There's a sense that these dancers welcome the change of pace.

Eighteen years after Ailey's death, he still dominates the company he founded. Besides his own works, the touring repertory has ballets by his contemporaries, newer dances in an Ailey-influenced style. This company is known for drawing on black music and culture – but that tends to mean jazz and gospel, nothing so recent as R&B.

The Golden Section, which is danced to music by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, was created for Tharp's own company in 1983. Acquired by AAADT last year, it stands out from the rest of the repertory. The company is broadening its range, taking on the mainstream.

The style sees Tharp moving from contemporary dance towards ballet, fast and urgent. At first, the Ailey dancers don't quite get the driving pace: you can see the planning in some of those overhead tangles. They're happier in soloist moments, when Tharp sets them mooching and shimmying. In the ballet's final sequence, several dancers throw off solos with exuberant confidence, happily caught up in the moment.

Alongside the Tharp experiment, the company has a more predictable jazz programme. It opens with Camille A Brown's new The Groove to Nobody's Business, a street-life ballet to music by Ray Charles and Brandon McCune.

We see types on a street, heading down to the subway, on a train. There's a guy with a newspaper, another with a sneezing fit, a squabbling couple, a shy woman. The comedy is limited, and has a limiting effect on the dance: Brown is so busy spelling out the characters' tics that she hardly leaves them space to dance. A few bursts of stomping suggest she could do better.

Portrait of Billie, created by John Butler in 1959, is a diva-as-tragic-victim number. While Billie Holiday songs play, Alicia Graf puts a camellia in her hair, encounters a man who does her wrong, and ends up on the floor, while the recording ends with audience applause. Graf is elegant, but she can't suggest the power of Holiday's singing.

The Road of the Phoebe Snow, another 1959 ballet, seems to aim for West Side Story before losing the plot. Choreographer Talley Beatty gets boys and girls dancing together in 1950s dance-at-the-gym style. Then, for no obvious reason, everybody turns on the sentimental leading couple, leading to rape and violence. It's both conventional and unlikely.

Billy Wilson's The Winter in Lisbon, which was made in 1992, is much more fun, with the whole cast strutting and bouncing along to music by Dizzy Gillespie.

Until 15 September (www.sadlerswells.com; 0844 412 4300), then touring until 10 October (www.alvinailey.org)

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