Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Classy but superficial

Nadine Meisner
Sunday 08 December 2013 06:35
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After cancelling its planned London season last year, following the Twin Towers catastrophe, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back after an 11-year absence. It aims, as it says, to promote black cultural expression and celebrate American modern dance. The first of its two London programmes holds true to that, enthusing an audience with this affirmation of African Americanism. But to my mind, by far the most impressive part of the equation are the dancers. They are physically gorgeous, glossily trained, and powered with a supple fluency that produces perfection with even the toughest challenges. They deserve quality choreography to match.

That comes only with the third and final piece, Revelations. The company has been riding on this masterpiece by its founder Alvin Ailey for four decades, although Ailey, who resisted being defined by a single piece, kept trying to bury it. Distilling memories of his Southern childhood, Ailey created a succession of dances to gospel songs and spirituals that, after considerable pruning of its original form, exalts and invigorates. Like the lyrics, the movement has a terse directness that gives it an overwhelming power, simple yet still richly resonant. The arching backs – straight out of Graham technique – seem like expressions of human frailty.

In the slow duet to "Fix Me Jesus", Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell stretches her leg as if testing the air in a surge of hope, or in supplication; while the off-balance extensions and tornado whizzes of the three men to "Sinner Man" have the chaotic frenzy of distorted souls. Ailey's staging is always spare, yet magisterially effective.

Even after countless viewings, Revelations never fails to affect me, or to rouse its audience into unstoppable clapping for an encore. Whether the dancers are tired of performing it night after night (it closes both London programmes) is something else. Its economy and variety of mood and pace comes as a stark contrast to the monotonous garrulousness of the other pieces. Grace, by Ronald K Brown, offers some gripping visuals, as men and women in red or white launch themselves in a perpetuum mobile of contrapuntal groups, or journey across the stage in what is apparently intended to suggest life's progression. But, as in Alonzo King's Following the Subtle Current Upstream, vague premises and rambling structures strip the dance of any depth. The music may pulse funkily, but that doesn't stop it being mostly wallpaper. The hyper-articulated language reduces the dancers to two-dimensional figures ceaselessly flickering on a screen. Meanwhile, the dancers give their all, some featured against the ensembles, with Jeffrey Gerodias striking in King's piece (as he is in "I Wanna Be Ready" in Revelations).

The present director, Judith Jamison, is doing a great job with performing standards, but to mark a London opening, the repertoire offered a limp handshake.

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