The return of the great Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for a British tour is a major event. The company brings a variety of works to each venue, and always performs Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations

Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts, <i>After the Rain Pas De Deux</i> © Paul Kolnik
Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts, After the Rain Pas De Deux
© Paul Kolnik
The first programme at Sadler's Wells opens with Exodusby Rennie Harris. Dormant people are scattered across a dappled stage. A woman is cradling a young man in her arms. It is a pieta: perhaps the aftermath of gang violence. A gunshot rings out. An impressive man runs in slow motion. He is already too late, but the others come alive as he passes, building slow movement against a fast, driving beat. The contrast between the music and movement keeps building tension, with so much energy held in control. We expect resolution, but the man calls the victim to stand and something spreads through the whole cast who join the beat with intricate hip-hop steps, in tight unison. They flow through sophisticated formations and combinations that gradually transform them. Feet blur with speed while bodies, arms and positions make clean shapes, enhanced by a change to white clothes. A gunshot rings out. The victim falls into the man’s arms and the shock crashes through all of them before reflecting back to darkness and silence. This is hip-hop distilled. There is none of the usual swagger or personal expression, but the style is held in check to express something deeper. It is moving and powerful. Jamar Roberts, as the running man, is exceptional. He personifies intensity and precision: a powerhouse of groove, echoed by a strong cast.

Four Corners by Ronald K Brown is a perfect contrast. Sinuous shoulders and arms combine with swivel steps and hips. African motifs combine with classic contemporary turns and poses, always driven on by rhythm and a seamless mix of Jazz and music from Mali. We start with a sense of toil. Wide arm movements suggest digging or harvesting, the women’s costumes revealing strong backs and hair wrapped for work alongside men in working clothes. Four of the women are dressed alike as Mother Africa figures. They create the corners of the title from time to time, allowing small groups to evolve the dance towards redemption and hope. All the dancers embody the movement which seems to come from deep within. The sway and flow is infectious: dance you feel while you are watching.

A further contrast comes with the popular pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain pas de deux  It’s a beautiful, legato piece set to the music of Arvo Pärt. Akua Noni Parker and Jamar Roberts showed their modern ballet credentials well. There were moments when they gave me chills of delight and, judging by the roars of acclaim, the audience loved it. I wish they’d injected even more of their own strong physical presence, rather than striving for a dreamy lightness that was not always convincing. The only work in the programme that did not draw on African American heritage, it felt a little out of place.

Alvin Ailey's <i>Revelations</i> © Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey's Revelations
© Paul Kolnik
 Alvin Ailey’s own Revelations from 1960 is excellent and important. A three-part work set to Spirituals moving from sorrow and oppression through hope to joyful redemption. It’s an affectionate celebration of the culture of Ailey’s youth among the poverty and segregation of Black Texans before civil rights, where faith in God was faith in themselves and their future. The dance language is clean and natural, seeming to grow from the soil of the deep South. 

We start with up-stretched arms and deep longing on a stage lit with southern heat. A series of solos, duets and group pieces depict heartfelt desire, crying to heaven and finding beauty in the sorrow. We move to the riverside, complete with bright skies, baptismal white clothes and the hope of liberation. The final section is glorious, in many senses. A huge, hot sun frames ladies in yellow dresses and fine hats gathering for Church, chatting and arguing (with every emotion concentrated by the fans they use in the heat) before dancing up a storm of joy with the men. You are hit by huge waves of happiness and end the show smiling.

This is a “must see”.

*****