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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre

'Best of Alvin Ailey'

by David Mead

September 21, 2007 - Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham

That a ‘Best of Ailey’ programme contains three works all over twenty years old probably says a great deal about what the company has, or rather has not, been doing in the meantime.  Perhaps more surprisingly, two of the works were originally made for other companies, with only “Revelations”, the Ailey company’s signature work being made by the man himself.

Highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section”, which gave the Ailey dancers full reign to show off their capacity for devilishly fast athletic movement including some amazing leaps and turns.  Set to David Byrne’s driving rock score, and originally the finale to “The Catherine Wheel”, Tharp’s full evening work is about a rather dysfunctional family from 1981; a fact the theatre programme rather oddly ignored.  It is typically Tharp, full of loose-limbed movement as it draws on ballet, jazz, gymnastics, boxing and goodness knows what else.  You never know quite what is going to happen next as dancers suddenly change direction or enter and exit from unexpected places.  In Tharp’s original, the work reflects the melodrama that goes before it.  Here though it gets the full Ailey treatment.  It’s danced very much for fun, the dancers playing to the audience at every opportunity.  It’s a very different interpretation from the original but it does work, was supremely well danced by all concerned and is a welcome addition to the company’s repertory.

The evening was opened by Maurice Béjart’s “Firebird”.  Although the ballet has lost its political significance, having been inspired by idealism and the revolution of events in France in 1968, it continues to work well as a piece of dance.  The main group of dancers, dressed in blue grey tunics and trousers, gave an excellent impression of strength as they fought some invisible enemy.  These fighters are supposed to draw renewed power from the Firebird but here it was sometimes as if it was the bird that needed some help as Clifton Brown perhaps erred a little too much on the side beauty rather than power.

While all three works on the programme are from the past and very much of their time and place, the Béjart and Tharp continue to work well today.  I am not so sure about “Revelations”, which concluded the evening.  Ailey regarded the cultural heritage of the African-American as one of America’s richest cultural treasures, and the work is a tribute to that heritage.  Danced to a combination of spirituals, gospel songs and holy blues, the work is a one-off and it is special.  Audiences love it and it says a great deal about the company, who dance it well and with plenty of gusto.  But it is also a work that seems rather stuck in the past, and I can’t help feeling that certain parts of it in particular do nothing but perpetuate some rather outdated stereotypes.

Looking at the works danced elsewhere on the UK tour, one is struck by the fact that all bar one are at least 15 years old.  Ailey’s heritage should not and must not be forgotten, but new works are the lifeblood of any company.  It was good to see them bringing in dances by other choreographers, but where are the new in-house pieces?

One excellent piece of news from the two-night stay in Birmingham was that both performances were sold out.  For many years the city was something of a desert for modern/contemporary dance.  The management at the Hippodrome and the Dance Consortium deserve much credit for changing that and proving there is an audience for it after all.

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