After an exuberant tour of African American dance history in the opening programme of this Dance Consortium tour of the UK, the mood of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers travelled to night clubs in Latin America for the second programme. It opens with the Afro-Latin jazz of Ronald K Brown’s Open Door carrying diverse evocations of Cuba and Brazil – before landing squarely in an Argentine milonga with a welcome revival of Paul Taylor’s celebration of the nuevo tango music of Astor Piazzolla.

AAADT in Ronald K Brown's <i>Open Door</i> © Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Ronald K Brown's Open Door
© Paul Kolnik
The first of these dances suited the company better. Brown has now made six works on the Ailey ensemble, starting with Grace, in 1999, and including Four Corners, which was performed in Programme A. On this evidence, it is clear that a comfortable, easy rapport has evolved between his signature movement language and these outstanding dancers. Made in 2015, it seems that Open Door likely refers to the thawing of relations between the USA and Cuba – a country that Brown has visited, often – and he has turned to Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra for the four musical sections that comprise the work (all composed by O’Farrill bar the closing number, the Latin jazz classic, Picadillo by Tito Puente).  

It would appear to be unintentional but I also detected a strong flavour of Brazil, not least in Brown’s movement language. His fast-moving lines of sideways steps reminded me of the choreography of Rodrigo Pederneiras for Grupo Corpo (most recently seen in the Rio Olympics’ Opening Ceremony). But, for most of Open Door, the dancers just seemed to be having a good time, as if we were spying on the young and beautiful enjoying the very best of Havana nightlife.  

Throughout both programmes seen to date, two senior Ailey dancers, Matthew Rushing (joined in 1992 and now, officially, a guest artist) and Linda Celeste Sims (joined in 1996) have been to the fore and, in Open Door, they are again the lead couple; once more, verifying an engaging, elegant and fluid partnership. The ten-strong group of dancers are impressive when they move in complete synchrony while retaining visually-arresting collective shapes.

By contrast, it pains me to say that Piazzola Caldera was a tepid affair. It is a beautifully constructed piece by one of the great (and unsung, at least here in the UK) masters of modern dance, evoking the working class roots of tango in a dimly lit milonga. Unsurprisingly, three of the four musical numbers are by Piazzolla with the opening group dance (El son sueno), composed by his contemporary, Jerzy Peterburshsky.

Belen Pereyra, Linda Celeste Sims, Yannick Lebrun in Paul Taylor's <i>Piazzolla Caldera</i> © Paul Kolnik
Belen Pereyra, Linda Celeste Sims, Yannick Lebrun in Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera
© Paul Kolnik

Taylor exposes sexual tension from the very beginning with groups of men and women eyeballing each other across the dance floor, lights hanging like giant pendula above the stage. Later, two drunken men give up the quest and dance together haphazardly as the lights swing above them; and a lonely woman collapses, despairing her failure to score a partner. 

In the midst of this, Taylor has reinterpreted the tango in his own modern dance signature, highlighting its sexy combativeness. But, almost twenty years separate his creation from its revival on these Ailey dancers and something about that transition has not yet clicked into place. Where the dancers are comfortable with the work of Brown, they are still struggling to “get” the essence of this piece. The technique and the harmonies were there but the chemistry was not and somehow what should have been a vibrant celebration of Piazzolla’s jazzy, sensual ground-breaking music lacked that essential spark.  

As always, the show closed with Alvin Ailey’s classic evocation of the joy and struggle of African Americans in the racially-segregated world of his Texan childhood, during the Great Depression. It opens with one of the strongest images in modern dance as a tightly-ordered group, stretching out their arms like eagles’ wings; stare out into the single circle of light that encapsulates them, moving gently to the haunting Negro spiritual, I Been Buked

Jacqueline Green in Alvin Ailey's <i>Revelations</i> © Paul Kolnik
Jacqueline Green in Alvin Ailey's Revelations
© Paul Kolnik
Revelations comprises ten such vignettes of Black Lives mattering in the deep south, highlighting jubilation and suffering, devotion and grief, all borne on the overwhelming tide of spiritualism that sustained African Americans in those times of great adversity. Ailey references the joy of dressing up for Sunday Church service – Akua Noni Parker proudly holding her best parasol aloft, like a standard bearer; and the panic of men on the run, escaping from the chain gang (a glorious rendition of Sinner Man). 

Keeping Revelations to close every show not only honours the company’s visionary founder (Ailey died in 1989, aged 58) but also ensures that every performance ends on a high because it's hard for any audience not to rock and clap along to Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, which always enjoys a welcome post-curtain-call reprise.             

The enduring popularity of Revelations – now approaching its sixtieth anniversary - is all the more remarkable given that it is danced to recorded music and possesses no set to speak of (the only ornamentation comes in great costumes, a few props and some simple back projections). It is a work of genius, a living treasure, lovingly caressed by the performances of these exceptional dancers.