Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater stunned audiences this month with three dazzling dance programmes at Sadler’s Wells. Here, Eirini Diamantouli reviews their final programme featuring new works Ounce of Faith and Members Don’t Get Weary, and classics Ella and Revelations.
Set to a mix of jazz standards, spoken word and original compositions, the first work’s central theme refers to the powerful legacy of education and mentorship, reflecting on the notion that: ‘when someone has an ounce of faith in you, it can change the course of your life.’ Channelling Ailey’s ability to merge various and disparate elements of African, Native American and balletic movement, choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s work is spirited and celebratory. The exultant energy of the piece is infectious, if at times exaggerated, building to points of dizzying speed and intensity.
With exquisite tenderness and fluidity, the dancers embody the undulating melodic contours of Coltrane’s virtuosic soundtrack (‘Dear Lord’ and ‘Olé’) in the evening’s second work, Member’s Don’t Get Weary, choreographed by long-term Alvin Ailey dancer himself, Jamar Roberts. A response to the current ‘social landscape in America’, Members reflects on the experience of having ‘the blues’ and the strength, through unity, to overcome the darkness.
The dancers wear utilitarian outfits in various shades of blue, accompanied at first with wide-brimmed straw hats. Designed by Roberts himself, these costumes contribute to the powerful visual imagery evoking scenes of communal work under the heat of the sun. The speed and synchronisation of movement onstage is striking, suggestive of the transcendent power of community, togetherness. After the hats are cast aside, various intimate duets embedded within the piece further communicate the strength found through connection. The dancer’s complete physical commitment to the music, their profound sensitivity to the divergent melodic lines, presents a fitting tribute to the music of Coltrane, 50 years since his death.
The programme’s penultimate work is Ella, a spirited duet set to Fitzgerald’s ‘Airmail Special’, showcasing the iconic singer’s distinctive scat singing. Inflected with humour and flair, the dancers match the speed and energy of their soundtrack with masterfully articulated movements to compelling effect.
The evening concludes, as every show does, with Alvin Ailey’s seminalRevelations. First performed in 1960 and choregraphed when Ailey was only 29, the company’s signature work tells a story of struggle, defiance and empowerment; a celebration of African-American culture rooted in history but speaking powerfully to contemporary concerns. Comprising African-American spirituals, gospel and blues, the soundtrack works brilliantly to convey the spiritual and emotional odyssey of the piece; through bitter grief to holy, triumphant joy. The dancers embody this journey with sobering dignity. Their remarkable physicality, exuberance and sheer commitment to the work reinvigorates it and renews its central messages.
With its immersive power over the imagination and the senses dance can be a powerful means of sharing ideas, communicating narratives and inspiring emotions. In foregrounding the African-American experience on the modern dance stage with new and existing works, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues to educate and inspire audiences around the world, over 60 years since its establishment. Set against increasingly fraught social landscapes, the dance theater’s messages, central to which is Ailey’s vision and legacy, are now – perhaps more than ever – not only important, but highly necessary.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed at Sadler’s Wells from 4th to 14th September. For more information on the company and their tour schedule click here.