BWW Review: ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATRE, Sadler's Wells
Thriving dance troupe Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre return to Sadler's Wells for the first time in three years with a varied set of programmes, contrasting challenging themes of new work with joyful signature piece Revelations.
Inspired by Ailey's own childhood attending services at a Baptist church in Texas, Revelations is a euphoric, richly textured, feel-good dance experience. The 35-minute piece, first seen in 1960, zips by in a joyful flash. The women in billowing white costumes swoop and swing across the stage without inhibition to "Wade in the Water" and are joined by their male partners for the hypnotic finale to "Rocka My Soul (in the Bosom of Abraham)".
There's powerful imagery in the opening section: a subset of dancers face the audience with palms outstretched before the sorrowful vocals of Mahalia Jackson's "I Been 'Buked" fill the air. It still feels as fresh and relevant as one imagines it did the very first time. Clifton Brown has memorable stage presence, not to mention a core of steel, in his exposingly slow solo to "I Wanna Be Ready". You'll be hard pressed to come by a more satisfying conclusion to an evening of dance.
An intense and altogether more difficult affair is newer two-act work Lazarus. Premiered in 2018, it highlights the racial inequalities experienced by Ailey in 1960s America and the continued struggles into the present day.
The opening minutes are bewildering and there's too much opportunity for the audience to disengage. James Clotfelter's dingy lighting adds confusion and lacks the typically uplifting feel present in so many of Ailey's work, but Rennie Harris's choreography is skilful once the audience can focus in.
The opening act is characterised by grief; we see images of distress and brutality caused by racial inequalities. It's all perpetuated by sporadic hacking coughs that complete the disturbing imagery.
Fortunately, the tone, and the lighting, lift considerably in Act Two and Lazarus finally feels like a dance work rather than a collection of bleak images. There's informal hip-hop choreography with an underlying thudding beat, most memorably to Michael Kiwanuka's "Black Man in a White World". The company dancers, dressed now in purple vests and shorts, are so wonderfully precise but still manage to appear so cool and unassuming as they flood the stage with their effortless rhythm.
The message Harris seeks to convey here is important, but the storytelling is not particularly accessible for an audience new to AAADT's work. This aside, the company remain so instantly recognisable, their performances always overflowing with emotive passion and unrivalled exhilaration - a night spent with AAADT is never a wasted one.