I strongly advise you to go and see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater playing now at Sadler’s Wells. Six years have passed since their last UK tour. This was a long overdue visit by the NYC based company, an American modern dance classic that brought a breeze of African American energy. Their mastery of Alvin Ailey’s signature works – Revelations and Cry – is exceptionally refreshing and the newer pieces presented are solid, intense and aesthetically mesmerizing. The programme of the evening featured four dances that literally seduced the audience into their best cheering.

Matthew Rushing in Aszure Bartons' <i>LIFT</i> © Paul Kolnik
Matthew Rushing in Aszure Bartons' LIFT
© Paul Kolnik
For those not familiar with the company, in this Graham, Limon and release centric dance world, they are one of the few using the often unjustly forgotten Lester Horton technique, mixing it with Graham aesthetics. Horton studied Native American and other ethnic dances producing a technique that creates very strong and pliable dancers. The company used to dance mostly Ailey’s works but now their repertory has expanded to include works by contemporary choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Aszure Barton.

The evening starts with Aszure Barton's powerful Lift. Created for the company in 2013, the piece opens with a men-only sequence. The gleaming bodies and beautiful movements ripple like fluid silk through the complex percussion background by Curtis Macdonald. Burke Brown’s lighting design greatly enhances the muscular lines of the topless dancers. It reminded me of the masculinity of Jiří Kylián’s Sarabande (1990) without the existential angst. The energetic body percussions are also featured in the women’s section, together with stumping and vocal exclamations. Their movements are magnified by Fritz Masten’s halter neck tops and fringed skirts. All wear a rigid necklace. There is not clear story line, only an atmosphere of modern ritual celebrating the dancers’ physicality, strength and vitality.

Rich of ritual elements but aesthetically contrasting is Awakening, the newest piece by artistic director Robert Battle. Twelve dancers fully clad in white run through the stage, they then fall on the floor and crawl forming a group from which one of them emerges, holding onto but leaning out of them. An unwilling leader, he manages, by the end of the dance to have the others follow him into the awakening. Loosely based on autobiographical material, Battle depicts Ailey’s calling and role in American modern dance. It shows a skilful use of dynamics, space and light design over the isolations and rippling movements of the previous dance. Somehow less fluid because of its references to early modern dance, it was greatly executed by the dancers.

The white theme continues in the intense solo Cry. Choreographed in 1971 by Alvin Ailey, it was powerfully interpreted by Linda Celeste Sims. A birthday present to Ailey’s mother and a dance dedicated to all women, it features a lonely figure with a long white ruffled skirt and a white stole. In the first of the three sections of the dance, the stole stands for a cleaning rag, chains, a seductive shawl and a turban. In the second, choreographed to Laura Nyro’s song Been on a Train, she experiences live changing events (such as the loss of a loved one). In the last episode she is finally a carefree joyful woman. All women are at once lovers and mothers.

<i>Revelations</i> © Pierre Wachholder
Revelations
© Pierre Wachholder
The evening culminates with Ailey’s iconic Revelations. Premiered in 1960 and danced to spirituals and gospels it is still captivating today. The dancers in white enter in a procession, a couple, three men holding banners and sticks and a woman with a white umbrella. This first scene has a clear colonial feel. The dance then moves through several sections always on religious songs: from images of slavery, to the crossing of the sea and the psychedelic sixties. At the end the whole company dances joyfully, with the women in warm orange round hats and fans sitting on stools, and the men in crisp white shirts and waistcoats. There is a feeling of hope for human harmony.

Astonishingly, the older pieces seemed to be as lively and relevant as if they had been choreographed yesterday. True masterpieces never lose their freshness. There is a particular way in which the Ailey’s dancers flirt with the audience, a smile, a twirl of the hip and one wants to join them in the dance. It is difficult to refrain and that is exactly what happened during the company ‘encore’ with the audience clapping and cheering at the rhythm of the music. It has been a pleasure to see such strong, charismatic dancing and joie de vivre. Let’s hope they will soon be back.

*****