Alvin Ailey, Sadler's Wells, London, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Peacock, London
Half a century ahead of its time
Sunday 19 September 2010
There is nothing in Britain like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
It's not that black or mixed-race dance hasn't made it into the mainstream. It's that no dance of any kind has infiltrated the national consciousness the way Ailey's has, over the pond. For this is a dance company that's more than an institution, now celebrating its first half-century (the Mattel toy manufacturer has just brought out an Ailey Barbie doll to honour it). With its emotionally charged amalgam of ballet, Broadway and all-round athletic fabulousness, it's become the embodiment of an ideal, a purveyor of identity, and a national icon on a par with Mount Rushmore.
Launching an eight-venue UK tour, the first of two programmes at Sadler's Wells, as you'd expect, plays the heritage ticket, at least in part. George Faison's Suite Otis, from 1971, glories in the iron-filings-in-the-tonsils vocals of vintage Otis Redding. Girls in swirly skirts and snake hipped guys gyrate and twirl, beam and flirt as the hits roll out. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is given to a chorus of stroppy females, who groom themselves for some coming encounter, then erupt in a froth of frustrated rage. A cute comedy duet has the couple glued cheek-to-cheek in connubial bliss, repeatedly blown apart by domestic spats, only to make it up in double- quick time for the cycle to begin again. It's fun, fast (speed is a speciality of this company), but ultimately limited. You begin to tire of seeing what appears to be the same combo of bum wriggle, turn and leap, repeated over and over. And the guys' raspberry-pink satin trews might have made more retro sense if they'd gone the whole hog with Afro wigs.
By contrast, what Ailey achieved in his own Revelations (1960), inspired by childhood memories of the Baptist Sunday services in his native Texas, is timeless. Strong, simple outlines – a phalanx of raised palms in "I Been 'Buked", the ecstatic, heavens-reaching balances in the duet "Fix Me Jesus" – sear into the imagination like a branding iron.
Once again, this being my eighth viewing, I looked hard for any hint of a pasted-on smile in the rollicking finale, "Rock My Soul (In the Bosom of Abraham)", but found none. The joy, it would seem, is genuine, and by the end, the audience is on its feet and roaring.
It'll be a brave director who breaks the tradition of signing off every show with this Ailey barnstormer – but Robert Battle may be that man. Next July he takes over from the towering Judith Jamison, Ailey's muse up to his death in 1989 and an inspirational figure in her own right. It's a hard act to follow, but the work Battle created for this programme bodes well. The Hunt is one for the boys: a ritualised stalk-and-fight scenario for six bare-chested men that sublimates its influence of African tribal dance with a whiff of distinctly urban threat.
The soundtrack from percussion group Les Tambours du Bronx sounds as if it's been bashed out on metal trashcans in a subway, and at times you find your own ribs reverberating with each thud. By the end the climaxes have piled on so thick and fast it's quite exhausting, yet kind of thrilling too. The other new work, Dancing Spirit, by Ronald K Brown, more freely acknowledging its Africanism, breezes through a compilation of Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis and Radiohead with rippled spines and splay-legged stomps, but suffers longueurs and meanders.
Not every item is a winner, then, but for glamour and gusto these dancers can't be beat. Don't miss them if they come to a theatre anywhere near you.
In terms of mould-breaking diversity, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, also based in New York (never mind the moniker), have not been far behind. The world has long been awash with wannabe ballerinas. But who knew there were so many with size 11 feet?
Yes, the Trocks, as they have come to be known, are male to a man, yet insist on performing ballets intended for a cast of wispy girls on pointe. A good deal of the Trocks' comedy derives from the sheer absurdity of masculine bulk balanced on a toe's width of blocked satin, but other aspects of ballet conformism are pointed up too. One of the Trocks wears glasses, another has a Cyrano nose, and another dwarfs her weedy partner, kindly giving him a bunk-up now and then.
Yet the intention is not to mock so much as delight in ballet's foibles and potential mishaps – the corps de ballet girl slugged into the wings by a stray arabesque, the charm malfunctions and pecking-order squabbles that have beset classical companies for 150 years.
New audiences lap up the slapstick, and the opening spiel in a cod-Russian accent which announces that "Natasha Notgudenov will not be appearing" (this segment is surely due for a few fresh jokes). Aficionados, meanwhile, relish the observations on performance practice. As well as being sharp physical comics, the Trocks have an in-depth knowledge of ballet history.
Me, I still laugh till I cry at pretty much all of it, but would make special mention of Brock Hayhoe's gormless danseur noble in ChopEniana (the Russian version, aka Les Sylphides, of which the Trocks dance every last step as written, however difficult), and Raffaele Morra's tremulous sylph, her delicate port de bras offset by an abundance of chest hair.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Sadler's Wells (0844 412 4300) to 25 Sep; then touring to Nottingham, Birmingham, Plymouth, Cardiff, Bradford, Edinburgh and Newcastle. Details: danceconsor tium.com. The Trocks: (0844 412 4322) to 25 Sep
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