Suite Otis, The Hunt, Dancing Spirit, In/Side, Revelations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; September 14, 2010By David Mead
Always elegant and exuberant, the Ailey dancers are a treat to watch. They sashay their way through programmes with such togetherness and verve, no easy things to match, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else dancing their works. Like all good companies they also have a respect for their history, but therein also lay a problem. Perhaps that respect is too deep, but for too long the company seems to have stood still choreographically. There have been many new works, but little sign of moving on. At last though there are rays of light. While this programme had plenty of looking back, it also gave a glimpse of what might be to come in two excellent works by Artistic Director Designate Robert Battle, who takes over the reins on July 1, 2011.
Highlight of the evening was Battle’s “The Hunt”, which although previously danced by Ailey II, was receiving its main company premiere. This choreography of this ritual combat for three men versus three men is carried along powerfully by pounding drumming of the French percussion group Les Tambours du Bronx. It is full of drama as the six men, dressed in Japanese-style long black skirts with red linings stalk and fight each other. But put aside any ideas of a crude representation of tribal dance. Battle is far more original and inventive than that as he plays with the constantly shifting rhythms and urgency of the drums. A special mention too for Burke Wilmore’s outstanding, mood-inducing, lighting.
The second Battle work, “In/Side”, is a tormented solo danced to Nina Simone’s “Wild Is The Wind”. Samuel Lee Roberts was an imposing presence right from the start as he entered spider-like upstage. His face seemed to increasingly contort in a mental anguish that reverberated through his perfectly formed muscular body. Full of powerful reaching out gesture and silent screams it was as if he was pleading with us to help release him from whatever terror was afflicting his body. It was impressive indeed.
The evening opened with “Suite Otis”, George W. Faison’s 1971 tribute to the late, great Otis Redding. Danced to such classics as “Dock of the Bay”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Try a Little Tenderness”, it deals with the relationships between six couples in a series of boy-girl vignettes. The dancers all gave strong performances, but while there are moments of tenderness and moments that make you smile, it is all very undemanding stuff. The garish candy floss pink costumes seemed hugely appropriate given that the dance has just about the same lack of substance. The music and Redding’s voice are so powerful, emotive and full of soul, yet there was little of that in the dance.
Ronald K. Brown’s “Dancing Spirit” has a little more depth and certainly more choreographic structure. It plays out pleasantly enough. Brown makes great use of diagonals and processions as he develops the initial African dance inspired movements and geometry of the piece, simultaneously and gradually upping the tempo. There is a sense of dancing on some warm Caribbean beach under the stars, even before they appear on the backdrop. But despite the evocative mood, “Dancing Spirit” never really goes anywhere and ultimately dissolves into nothingness. Only one section sticks in the memory, Renee Robinson’s emotional solo danced in front of Clifton Taylor’s rising full moon.
And so to “Revelations”. Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it’s full of invention, colour and changes of mood. Yes, it should be loved and admired. Yes, it’s one of those small number of landmark works everyone should see. And yes, the dancers always make it look fresh, which says as much about them as it does about the work itself. In fact it is so good that it highlights the paucity of variation and invention in many of the other pieces. But does it have to appear on every programme, especially where two otherwise different bills are being presented in the same week? It’s like returning to a favourite restaurant but always having to have the same dessert. Maybe I’m among a minority, but I like to try, and see, different things. And are the company really saying that there are no other works in the repertory that they could finish a programme with? Mr. Battle, it’s time for the occasional change of menu.
Despite the reservations about some of the choreography and, it has to be said, the poor sound quality in “Suite Otis”, the Ailey dancers were, as ever, a joy to watch. Excellent individual performances came from Clifton Brown and Renee Richardson, both dazzlingly splendid throughout. Some of the work may be old fashioned in some ways, but it’s a treat to see a company so absolutely together and enjoying what they are doing. They also have a great rapport with their audience, and there are not too many companies who can say that. A version of this review with photographs will appear later in the magazine.Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater can be seen during October 2010 in Nottingham, Birmingham, Plymouth, Cardiff, Bradford, Edinburgh and Newcastle. See http://www.danceconsortium.com for details, dancers’ diaries and other features.